Yeah, it’s hard to associate clean with Kerry King.

Dude, that head is so gnarly sounding. It’s the closest thing I could find to punching a guy in the face. [Laughs] I used to use a Green Matamp, an MXR distortion, and a power amp, and then I got a Soldano unit, one of the old purple ones. I really liked the way the extra tubes in the chain made a difference in the tone. So once I figured that out, running the Soldano into the Green Matamp, through another power amp and then a bunch of 4x12s, it was like, “I’m on to something!” So then I called Mike [Soldano] and said “Hey, man, I play in this band called High on Fire” and he said “Yeah, I know who you are!” He’s a big fan and he offered to make me an SLO, so I took him up on it.

What differences are there between that one and a standard SLO?

Pike's dual-amp rig of Soldano SLO and Marshall JCM800 Kerry King heads. Soldano settings: Preamp - Normal: 7, Overdrive: 11, Bass: 11, Middle: 8, Treble: 4.9, Master - Normal: 4.9, Overdrive: 4, Presence: 4 - Marshall settings: Presence: 8, Bass: 8, Mid: 0, Treble: 5, Master: 5, Preamp: 9.8, Gate: 5, Assault: 10. Photo by Chris Kies
Well, it’s basically an SLO, but he and the guys there souped it up a little for me. So I use both those amps in conjunction with an A/B box, and I have my Soldano channel switch, which sits right next to it. I hit two switches at the same time to get my distortion. So I have this clean tone coming through the Soldano, and then I’ll hit both the pedals and it turns on the Marshall and the other 4x12s—and the distortion channel of the Soldano. I’m using three Emperor 4x12s—one for the SLO and two for the Marshall. [Editor’s note: Emperor cabs says Pike’s cabinets have a combination of Jensen JC12-70EL Electric Lightning and 80-watt Weber Ceramic Thames speakers.] I’ll sometimes use either two cabs or one for the clean tones, depending on the size of the venue. I’m also using an MXR Carbon Copy delay.

Nice, I like that pedal a lot.

I actually bought it to use for some Sleep reunion shows that we did a while back, and I ended up using it for High on Fire. It’s killer, like an old tape delay in this little box. It’s a great design. I don’t really need a bunch of pedals, just a little delay from time to time.

What are your thoughts on the Emperor cabs, and how did you get hooked up with them? I’ve been seeing those onstage a lot lately.

We were in Chicago when I first heard one onstage with a band that we were playing with. I really liked the way that they sounded, so I got in touch with them, and they made me a batch. The Green 4x12s that I had been using for years were beaten up pretty bad by that point, so I needed to replace them.

How do they compare to the Green cabs that you had been using?

Well, they have higher-wattage speakers, but they still sound really thick. Actually, they sound really similar, but the wood they use is really thick and sturdy.

You’re also a big proponent of First Act guitars. Most people only know them for their entry-level guitars, but they make some very nice custom instruments.

Man, they’re just the coolest guitar company ever. Bill [Kelliher] and Brent [Hinds] from Mastodon told me about them first, then Kurt [Ballou] from Converge. I called up John McGuire and Jimmy Archey at the company, and we’ve had an awesome relationship ever since. They hooked up me and Bill up with our nine-strings at the same time.

The top three strings are doubled, like a 12-string, right?

Yeah. I was hanging out with Bill one night, and we thought about how cool it would be to have a nine-string guitar. We both called them in the same week, and they were a little pissed because we didn’t have a design. They told me that I had to design it. So I had to go to the drawing board, and I thought to myself, “So, I get to design it, and Bill gets to play it. Cool!” [Laughs] I always really liked those Yamaha SGs that Santana played years ago, but I wanted a thicker guitar. I’m a man, I’ve got man hands, and I’m a big dude, so I need some weight and durability—because I’m gonna throw it around and beat it up or whatever. So I had them make it a half-inch thicker than a Les Paul Standard. I wanted a baseball bat neck, because I wanted to have big-ass strings on it—I need to punish with it. The pickups are from Kent Armstrong, and are really strong.

What tuning is that in?

C–F–Bb–Eb–G–C, low to high. I have another tuning now, too, which I use for the song “Bastard Samurai” off of the new record. It’s Bb–F–Bb–Eb–G–C.

How long did it take you to get used to playing the nine-string?

It took about a month. The doubled high strings provide a natural chorus, like how some guys will use a chorus pedal to cop it, like Zakk Wylde.

Is that what you use to play the intro to “Waste of Tiamat” [from Death Is This Communion]?

Live, totally. Jeff plays a couple of different Middle Eastern instruments, and the Tambura is one of them. So when we recorded it, we had a bunch of different instruments sitting around. I originally wrote that part, then Jeff altered it and said we should have more Middle Eastern parts. Dirty hippy. [Laughs] After hearing it, I was like, “OK, you’re right man! I totally get it now.”

That’s kind of another example of how bands in this scene have achieved notoriety on their own terms—they tour on their own and live out of their vans. A lot of players think they need a huge record deal to get them going.

Yeah, I know. Record companies wash those people up and eat them alive. You’re doing alright one day, then the next thing you know you’re homeless and some guy is beating on you for money. If that’s what you want, then fine. It’s not like I’m gonna quit or something. But man, that’s what happens. And if anybody wants to fool themselves that this is all about being on the job…you fucking walk in front of that many people when you feel like shit, you’re hung over, you haven’t done yoga in a month [Laughs], and you’re gonna tell me how you’re going to perform all of the stupid songs you made up for yourself and that make everybody else happy? It’s not an easy task. Suck it up, because there’s no calling into work sick. I had to play with a 103-degree fever and just had throat surgery, and played an instrumental set. I was on, like, 20 Norcos! [Laughs]

There doesn’t seem to be this preconception of “making it” in this scene.

Well, you care about making it, but in the sense of living in the moment. I get in a van, I don’t want a girlfriend bitching at me, and I don’t want a boss bitching at me that I have to be somewhere at 5 a.m. I just want to be in the van, heading to a stage, and then ruling! And if I want to wake up someone in the band at one in the afternoon to party, then, goddamn, you better wake up and play some guitar. It’s the way it should be! And as far as the underground rock thing goes, everybody bringing it now is over 30. It’s the new 20.

You guys have worked really hard to get this far, and a lot of people don’t realize just how hard it is out there sometimes.

We all worked our asses off. And you know, it’s also great to be in a band where all three of us are really part of the creative process. No one wastes any time. We have a studio and we pretty much live down there. But even with that, the times that we can all play together don’t always line up. So, one of us will be down there recording, and then play it back later for everyone who wasn’t there. There’s a lot of “Hey, that sounded good, play that again—I have something for it.” At the same time, I can’t deal with record companies that want to give you a deadline. There is no deadline for High on Fire. We don’t put out shit—we haven’t put out a crappy riff on a record yet—and I do not have any plans to do that. If it takes time, it takes time. We couldn’t write an album in a month and be happy with it. If you could do that, fine. But that’s just not how it is with us.

Are you shocked at all the exposure you guys are suddenly getting?

No, I deserve it! I hate to be an asshole, but I really do think we deserve everything we can get. I mean, I don’t know one band that’s been in the trenches this long. We earned it, and we’re good. And we’re going to continue to get better. It’s just a matter of…well, I’m 37 years old now—how much longer am I gonna survive? [Laughs]

Matt Pike’s Gearbox
First Act Custom Shop nine-string
Soldano SLO head
Marshall Kerry King JCM800 head
Emperor 4x12 cabinets with Jensen JC12-70EL Electric Lightning and 80-watt Weber Ceramic Thames speakers
MXR Carbon Copy delay
Boss TU-3 Tuner