Flame On

Record label be damned—Oakland metal gods High on Fire are recording a new album at their own pace

High on Fire is one of those few heavy metal bands that everyone can get behind—blue-collar construction workers who buy their steaks at Wal-Mart and trust-funded hipsters who shop for organic tofu at Whole Foods. The band, which sounds like Conan the Barbarian punching a monster truck through a horde of armed and bloodthirsty orcs, demonstrates an authenticity of spirit you rarely encounter in today’s studio-refined, software-polished hard-rock scene.

“That’s right, man, we are so authentic that I am right now staring at a road-killed bobcat and nursing a serious turducken hangover while talking with you,” says singer/guitarist Matt Pike via phone from his band’s rehearsal cabin in the San Bruno Mountains high above the East Bay in California. “Ever had turducken? It’s chicken stuffed in duck stuffed in turkey. We instantly fell asleep after eating it last night. My drummer just woke up and ran into the woods to try to sweat off the calories.”

Passing out may explain High on Fire’s slow yet steady path to success. Pike formed his Oakland stoner-metal trio in 1998 out of the dirty bongwater of his previous band, ’90s-era pioneering weed-rockers Sleep. In 2000, High on Fire set the underground metal scene ablaze with its incendiary debut The Art of Self Defense, which earned small yet intense acclaim. Relapse, the biggest indie-metal label in the U.S., signed the band and released the next three widely celebrated discs, the latter with the help of different Nirvana producers—Steve Albini-helmed Blessed Black Wings (2005) and Jack Endino-orchestrated Death Is This Communion (2007).

Then, after a Communion tour … silence. High on Fire waited three years (a decade in teenage-headbanger time) before putting out the unanimously praised Snakes for the Divine for the high-profile eOne label (making Pike labelmates with commercial metal act Black Label Society). Going mainstream brings pressure, though.

“This new record we’re writing now is coming a little slower, too,” sighs Pike, who pauses our conversation to light a fresh joint. “Record labels and booking agents are always up our ass. But when people give us deadlines it never works; the music dries up. We know what we’re doing. When someone stops by to squeeze our balls, we’re like, ‘Relax, dude. Sit down and sample this whiskey.’”

To be fair, High on Fire’s music is ferociously complex, at times bordering on prog. The track “Frost Hammer” off Snakes, for instance, is a bludgeoning thrash epic that, when it downshifts into half-time, makes you feel trapped in a collapsing ice cavern.

“You won’t get our music right off the bat,” says Pike, 39. “Our songs have layers and levels that take awhile to process, unless you’re an advanced musician. I don’t mean to sound egotistical, but we strive to be the heaviest band alive.”

High on Fire—which includes bassist Jeff Matz and drummer Des Kensel—has succeeded. The trio remains dedicated to the goal of a new album, even if Pike plays one-off festival shows and small tours with his reformed and now-legendary cult band Sleep. (Interestingly, one of Sleep’s founding members is Vegas musician Tommy Choi, bassist in garage-punk quartet the Black Jetts, and someone whom Pike describes as “a great musician, one of my best friends.”) Sadly, those hoping for another Sleep album shouldn’t hold their breath.

“No new songs,” he confirms. “Every member has a main band that comes first. Let’s not make each other’s careers more difficult than they already are.”

Speaking of difficulty, High on Fire survived—count ’em—two natural disasters earlier this year—the band dodged the 6.3 magnitude earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, in February while on tour, then two weeks later touched down in Tokyo in time for the 8.9 magnitude earthquake. Despite suffering what he claims is post-traumatic stress as a result, Pike maintains his sense of humor.

“Vegas doesn’t seem like it’s going to crack off like our home state,” he says. “We’ll death-grip those video-poker machines and watch California fall into the sea.”

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