Matt Pike Don’t Need No Stinking Shirt

The Rockist speaks with his hand-picked Savior of Metal-High on Fire front man Matt Pike.

My Readistas know that the State of Metal never strays very far from my musical attention. I long to see metal return to the thriving community it once was. And I know the exact man to do it. A man whose very being cries out “Seek and Destroy”. A man who can appeal to even the most insincere hipster. A man who lives metal every day. That man is Matt Pike, lead singer and guitarist of my favorite metal band, High on Fire.

I spoke with the High on Fire frontman while his tour bus headed to Norfolk, Virginia — another stop on the “Adult Swim Presents” tour. Matt still enjoys shredding in front of a live audience, but he finds putting up with all the other politics and promotional aspects of today’s music business increasingly difficult. Like having a phone handed to you and having to talk to a complete stranger, I’m sure. Life on a tour bus gets monotonous as well. Your days recycle one after another, and just maintaining your enthusiasm becomes a real challenge.

Matt keeps it up for the “sake of the music”. “You need to have a real love for it [music] in your heart,” he says. There is no calling in sick while you’re on tour. Earlier in the tour, Pike suffered from a 100° fever. He played that night to an audience who thought all that sweat was just from the performance.

Matt traces his love for music and heavy metal back to his father, who listened to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Pink Floyd. His babysitter played more recent releases from AC/DC and Van Halen while watching lil’ Matt. By the age of eight, Matt was playing guitar with his grandfather and uncle and he was hooked on the noise those simple chords could produce.

Matt’s father owned a “louder than shit” Kenwood stereo that Matt inherited after his father split. Matt popped CCR and Kiss eight-tracks into the Kenwood, cranked it up, and followed along on his guitar.

Young Matt’s room was covered with posters cut from Hit Parader, Circus, and Creem. Lemmy, Randy Rhoads, Eddie Van Halen lived in a kind of adult heaven young Matt eagerly longed to explore. Little did he realize how soon he would almost book a room.

In Golden, Colorado, Matt fell in with a gang of kids who liked to live dangerously. They abused hard drugs. They stole cars in Denver, joyriding through the city with Celtic Frost or Van Halen blowing up the stereo. Matt got his first tattoo at the age of 14 or 15 on his right arm. “Laugh Now Cry Later” it read. Headed on a one-way ticket to IncarcerationLand, Matt’s mother put him in a military school.

Matt moved to the Bay area in California and gravitated toward the hardcore and metal crowd. He formed a band, Asbestosdeath, that would become Sleep. You need to listen to Sleep. Find the album Dopesmoker. It is one song, over 60 minutes long, about the ‘Weedian’ people. No, I’m not making that up. If my bong learned guitar, Dopesmoker is what it would produce.

Matt never shined to the “nu-metal” rebranding undertaken by the major labels in the mid-’90s. “If I never have to hear a Korn song again, it won’t be long enough,” he said.

After Sleep went up in smoke, Matt formed High on Fire, which focuses the primal energy of sleep into identifiable melodies. The result is a sound still neck deep in sludge, but with a hearty shot of thrash adrenaline. The band encapsulates everything metal should aim to be. Aggressive, epic, and uncompromising.

Besides the intensity of their music, what attracted me most to High on Fire is that they fully embraced the heavy metal ethos. You take one look at a High on Fire album cover, and you know right away that this is a 20-sided die roll away from a full-on goblin war. Matt’s lyrics reflect the books he reads on religions and the occult and he has always been interested in how organized ideas of good and evil “intertwine with the real world”.

Metal breeds NASCAR-levels of brand loyalty. Headbangers like myself want to own a shirt that makes us feel like we’re “with the band”. High on Fire consistently produce some of the best metal merch I’ve seen since the early ’90s. Matt seeks out artists who still produce hand-drawn work because he wants everything about the band to feel organic and of a piece. I own two High on Fire tees, and I might not be done yet.

When I told my brother (also a huge High on Fire fan) who I would be interviewing, he wanted me to ask Matt if he owned a shirt. You see, if you ever see High on Fire live, you’ll catch Matt in his uniform. Black jeans. Black boots. Stringy hair. No shirt. Well, Matt does own shirts. Does he wear them on tour? “Once or twice,” he said. Even front men need to follow Denny’s corporate policies.

High on Fire spent part of last year on Megadeth’s Gigantour (nobody, NOBODY, makes up better names than the metal industry). Matt learned a lot from his time with Mr. Mustaine & co. about what it means to be a front man and how to make the show as powerful as possible for that old dude all the way in the back (me).

Matt enjoyed his time on the Adult Swim tour. Mastodon and High on Fire are tight, and Converge and Dethlok exposed High on Fire to a new, younger audience. From their time on the Megadeth tour, Matt knew what kind of attention the opening act receives. This tour required him and the band to fire up a younger audience before most of them have been dropped off.

Look for High on Fire’s new album, Snakes for the Divine, on their new label E1, in Februrary 2010. Matt looks forward to hitting the road after that on a headliner swing. So those of us who missed them this year (seriously bummed) can get the full 90 minutes of sweat-soaked hearing damage that High on Fire provides live soon enough.