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Articles and thoughts by Peter Holslin

Heavy growling: High on Fire’s frontman has thrown down for nearly 20 years—and he’s not stopping any time soon

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Heavy growling

From left: Des Kensel, Matt Pike and Jeff Matz. Photo Travis Shinn.

After nearly a week of playing tour dates across the East Coast, Matt Pike’s vocal cords have begun to give out.

“I’ve just been screaming for seven days,” he says, on the phone from Connecticut on a recent Thursday. “And then they gave me like 40 interviews to do on top of that, so I just never shut up.”

He lets out a good-hearted chuckle. “It’s all right, don’t worry about it.”

Thus is life for the frontman of Oakland-based power trio High on Fire. A self-described “lifer” of the metal scene, 37-year-old Pike has come a long way in the nearly 20 years he’s been performing. But he still thrashes his cords on a daily basis.

“I’m fucking hard on them,” he says. “Especially doing an hour-and-a-half set every night is pretty grueling. Not everybody can do it. I have points on the tour when my voice will start going out altogether. So I gotta be careful, like, how much I talk and what I do and, you know, what I’m putting into my body.”

The thrashing began in the early ’90s, albeit at a pothead’s pace, when Pike played guitar for the renowned stoner metal band Sleep. After Sleep broke up in 1998, amid a dispute with their record label, London Records—which refused to release a 63-minute song called “Dopesmoker” as the band’s major-label debut—Pike formed High on Fire, speeding things up but maintaining a smoky, Black Sabbath-inspired feel.

Of course, the trio encountered plenty struggles throughout the years. In late 2006, drummer Des Kensel had to re-work his technique after he underwent neck surgery; later, bassist Jeff Matz came down with a serious case of food-poisoning. But they’ve powered through their relentless touring schedules and ended up as the everyman’s beloved metal band, winning praise from sources as diverse as extreme metal monthly Decibel magazine to the hipster blog Brooklyn Vegan.

High on Fire’s elephantine riffage is something any metal-head could appreciate, but it’s stripped of some of metal’s more embarrassing excesses. They’re not hyper-technical, but they’re raw, loud and able-bodied. They don’t worship Satan or wear outlandish costumes, but their mythical lyrics conjure awesome images inspired by H.P. Lovecraft (even if sometimes they don’t make sense). Pike has a gnarly growl that often resembles Lemmy from Motörhead, and it’s not the incomprehensible Cookie Monster-type growl of so much death metal.

High on Fire’s newest album, Snakes for the Divine, is their most hard-charging yet. Where 2005’s Blessed Black Wings felt loose and expansive and 2007’s Death is This Communion had a more psychedelic feel, the arrangements on Snakes are pared-down and direct. Pike’s cutting riffs and gnarled solos are clearer and sharper. Even Pike’s growl has more refinement.

In part, it’s the result of working with Greg Fidelman, who produced Slayer’s 2009 album World Painted Blood.

“He’s more of a producer, so he’s a little more hands-on,” Pike says. “He helped us with a lot of the arrangements. This time we had a lot of overwriting instead of underwriting, so we had the opposite of writer’s block. So, like, he helped us sort out a lot of the big puzzle we had all down in our heads.”

Pike says the hardest part of making the album was choosing which songs to include; he likens the process to choosing from the many deodorants available at a store. For all of his creativity, though, he says he can sometimes feel “immune” to the heavy music he’s immersed in.

“Shit, I’ve been playing it for 20 years or more. Sometimes you just kinda need to step back away from it, or you get burned out on it,” he says.

But he still wears his hair long, chomps burgers with multiple patties and downs booze at dicey Oakland bars. And he won’t be letting up on his growling any time soon. Three days after he finishes this national tour with a show in Oakland on May 8, he’ll be right back on the road, this time touring Europe with Metallica.

“I like keeping busy,” he says.

High on Fire plays with Black Cobra, Bison, Abrupt and Archons at The Casbah on Sunday, April 25. http://www.myspace.com/highonfire.

This article appeared in this week’s issue of San Diego CityBeat.

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