Long-Term Innovation and Sumerian Creation Myths: In Conversation with High On Fire

“By far the best record I’ve ever made with the High On Fire stamp,” frontman Matt Pike, who has gained fame as one-third of stoner legends Sleep and infamy as a keen reader of Sumerian creation myths and conspiracy theories, claims of Electric Messiah, the eighth album from the Californian trio. Of course, press releases contain bold statements like that all the time, but if you’re a fan of the band at their most direct, it’s hard to disagree.

Where many bands find themselves stagnating this far in, succumbing to the inevitable cycle of repetition, Pike, drummer Des Kensel and bassist Jeff Matz’s doom-meets-thrash template has not been simply rehashed this time around, rather the thrash takes the reigns and directs the release into a relentless vortex of cacophonous extremity. Electric Messiah boasts a name that pays homage to the late Motörhead main-man Lemmy and a sound that rivals the raucous rackets of the band he fronted, leaning heavily into raw, gravelly riffs that, in terms of both speed and intensity, would leave most bands behind in the dust.

Indeed, whilst the lyrical topics cover everything from dreams of Lemmy and Sumerian myths to Sir Francis Drake, the music itself is more concerned with primal brutality, revelling in chaos whether it comes in the form of driving sludgy thrash (‘Freebooter’, ‘Electric Messiah’), classic rock riffage (‘Drowning Dog’) or the ever-present pummelling percussion, which endures even when the guitars opt for mid-tempo riffs (‘Steps Of The Ziggurat/House Of Enlil’, ‘The Pallad Mask’).

With their new material in tow, the band recently set out on a co-headline tour of the UK with Enslaved, so we caught up with Matz backstage at London’s The Dome to talk all things Electric Messiah.

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So what made you decide to do a co-headliner this time?

The opportunity just came up and it seemed like a good package, it was actually a suggestion of our booking agent and we are buds with the Enslaved dudes so it just seemed like a good way to go.
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High On Fire’s last album, Luminiferous, was a bit of a benchmark for the band. What characteristics of that sound did you want to continue and what did you want to do a little differently this time around?

I don’t think we made a conscious decision of whether we wanted to adhere to the type of songs that we did on the last record or diverge from them. With our albums, it’s just kind of dependent on the music that we all bring to the table and how it puts together. The term ‘organic’ gets over-used a lot but I feel like it’s appropriate terminology for how our music comes together. Everybody has their ideas and brings them to the table and we either pair up and work on it with just two of us or the entire band works on it. We basically just demoed a bunch of material. We record everything, that’s the thing. We get together in the practice room and just record everything. Things sort of come together that way.
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Electric Messiah is perhaps the band’s heaviest and most direct offering yet, where do you think that fondness for faster speeds and comparatively less epic dramatic stuff came from?

I think that was natural as well. Take one of the faster numbers on this record, ‘Electric Messiah’. That was a riff that we had kicking around from a previous album and Matt and I were just messing around in the practice room and then came up with the verse riff and just said “hey why don’t we try that with this other riff?” Boom, there’s a song. We fleshed it out with the bridge part and that song was born. ‘Freebooter’ was another weird, Voivod tribute riff that I had that snowballed into a breakneck thrasher.
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It’s almost like sludge played at thrash speeds.

Yeah, it just sort of came together like that. I think subconsciously on every record we try to push ourselves a little more in terms of our ability and try to see if we can get away with upping the tempos just a little bit more and throwing in some crazy drum fills.
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Is the faster stuff more fun to play live?

I like it all, for different reasons. It’s fun seeing people react to the fast thrashy stuff, people tend to pit it out more so it’s cool to throw that stuff into the set.
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Eight albums in, is it hard to keep things fresh and to keep innovating with your songwriting?

Not for myself, I mean I’m playing all the time. I can only speak for myself, but when I’m coming up with music I write mostly on guitar and I can entertain myself for hours just sitting in front of a loud amp with some cool pedals just coming up with shit off the cuff, I just keep a tape recorder close at hand. It happens real natural. Writing this last album was kind of difficult in that it was the first album we’ve done all living in different states, so it was difficult in terms of the time we got to spend together in the practice room. It wasn’t as easy as previous albums where at least two of us lived in the same city so we could get together anytime, so we had to really make it count when we could get together and [we also] sent ideas via email. In a way, though, that kind of kept it fresh because when we hadn’t got together for a while it was like new when we did get in a room together. It’s not like we’re beating a dead horse or anything.
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Why do you think the creativity is still there at a point when some bands would begin to fade into obscurity? Is there anything the band do to keep from burning out?

I don’t know. I always try to listen to a lot of different kinds of music, not necessarily in the metal genre. I listen to loads of world music and Middle Eastern folk music, Eastern European music, African stuff, jazz. Classical music as well, just stuff that gets my head outside of the typical format. And then my roots are like classic metal, so that’s always there. That’s kind of the anchor for me, my style’s always going to have that flavour to it.
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Do you listen to a lot of new metal? Do find any of it making its way into your own writing?

I don’t know how much it actually influences what we write but there are certainly current bands that I really like and and I’m sure subconsciously that does influence us in a way.
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Some have called this album a tribute to Lemmy, would you say that Lemmy’s music influences its sound or is it more the lyrical concepts that pay testament to the late Motörhead frontman?

The song ‘Electric Messiah’, that was sort of Matt’s homage to Lemmy lyrically. The music is stuff that we already had; riffs that I had kickin’ around or worked out in the practise room. The Lemmy thing sort of came in after the fact. But, after the lyrics were introduced and we were like “hey man this is totally a Motorhead thing”, we came up with the idea to do the ‘Iron Fist’ bass intro so the two kind of grow together in parallel.
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This record marks your third time out with Kurt Ballou. What is it about his recording style that works so well for High On Fire?

Yeah, we made the decision to use Kurt again because he’s great to work with, he’s easy to work with. He understands our band and he understands the sound that we try to go for and what I like about Kurt is all the sounds that he gets. He manages to get a very airy, explosive drum sound while still keeping it tight enough so that the faster material translates well, which is hard to do, I find. [Often] it’s kind of one or the other. I just really enjoy the tones that he gets and his mixes hit really hard. And he’s a bro, he’s a good friend and he likes the band so we have a really good relationship with him.
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So this album also has what Matt has called his “rock opera” with ‘Steps of the Ziggurat/House of Enlil’. The track stands out as a proggier epic on an album of mostly thrashier numbers, how did it come about?

I think Des had the drumbeat for the opening part already written and Matt came up with the riffs and the chords that go over the top of that beat. Then Des and I wrote the middle part, the whole marching section of it, and then we reprised the intro part at the end of the song. Then Matt, he’s been doing a lot of reading about ancient Sumerian Babylonian mythology and sort of connecting that with various theories like how that’s linked to the Illuminati and reptilians and all sorts. I can’t elaborate too much on the lyrical content but it’s somewhat esoteric with veiled meanings. Then the end part is just something that we came up with. Matt did a lot of vocal layering, playing several different roles within that piece of music. Sort of a call-and-response between two Gods or something to that effect! I really enjoy that tune, that’s one we’re playing in our set on this tour, though we’re not doing the end part of it.
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What’s in store for the band’s future?

I couldn’t really say. We’ve got quite a bit of touring to go on this album cycle. We’re gonna do a full States tour and hopefully do Australia, Japan, maybe South America. Hopefully we’ll hit some new places and try to just do what we do and expand our fan base in the process.
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Electric Messiah is out now on eOne. Purchase here.

Words: George Parr

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