Although High on Fire mines music from the weightiest of ores, the Oakland-based trio plays heavy metal that even nonmetal fans can love.
"Our crowd isn't just metalheads. If you like good, loud music, played with love and heart, you'll like us," said singer and guitarist Matt Pike. "We're kind of a musicians' band. I think we're interesting enough to appeal to a wide range of listeners."
Speaking via cell phone, Pike was in Oakland a few days ago, unloading equipment before a rehearsal for the band's new concert tour, which will bring them to Tucson.
High on Fire transcends its genre in much the same way that predecessors such as Black Sabbath and Motörhead have. It's no coincidence, then, that the influences of those groups are apparent on High on Fire recordings, especially the group's masterly and majestic fourth album, Death Is This Communion, which landed on many metal critics' Top 10 lists for 2007.
"The three of us--we love heavy metal, and that's what we play, but that's not all we listen to, and there are always other influences on our music, such as Middle Eastern and classical and jazz and prog-rock," said Pike, whose two primary guitar heroes are Sabbath's Tony Iommi and jazz master John McLaughlin.
"We like to explore a lot of different music, and some of it slips into ours."
Take, for instance, the vaguely Zeppelin-ish acoustic guitar intro on "Waste of Tiamat" and the tambour playing on "Khanrad's Wall," both from the new CD.
Death Is This Communion shows High on Fire at the top of its game. Or, as Pike said, "I think we've evolved as a band, and finally, I think we're reaching a high level of evolution. It's like we were in training to be become what we are now."
Pike, now 35, formed High on Fire in 1998 after having played with the much-loved stoner-metal band Sleep. High on Fire's debut, The Art of Self-Defense, was released two years later. Soon after, Relapse Records signed the band and has issued all three albums since, including the latest.
High on Fire has reached its current rung on the evolutionary ladder by being both perfectionists and appreciating a warts-and-all approach.
"Raw power is a really important thing to us as a three-piece. But we're all pretty anal, too, about what we play, and the individual tracks, and the way they fit together. ... But I don't think we're going to be getting any more precise than we are. It's not like we're going to start using ProTools or anything. We're pretty old-school in that way."
The band's pursuit of a sound both raw and refined was aided on the new CD by legendary producer Jack Endino, who has been behind the boards for many excellent records by bands such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, Zeke and his own group, Skin Yard.
Pike figured Endino to be "the perfect match for us. It turned out good, because everything was there when we started working, in terms of the writing and the arrangements. I think the material was well-representative of what we are, and Jack's process is to work closely with us to bring that out as best as possible."
Pike, by the way, defies the stereotype of the knucklehead rocker; during his interview, he was polite, thoughtful and well-spoken, even while multitasking. And his lyrics show evidence of a voracious reading habit. A few times on each of High on Fire's albums, the average listener might have to resort to Google to figure out arcane historical and mythological references.
"When it comes time to write lyrics, I do a lot of reading and stuff, sometimes fiercely doing research. I explore different things, such as religion, fantasy, horror, science fiction, classical myths, whatever I can get my hands on.
"Although sometimes writing a song can be just an attempt to write a cool song, lots of times, those genres help me explore through metaphors and symbolism what is going on around me, what I see in everyday life."
The song "Rumors of War," though, is an exception. "That one is not really meant to be a metaphor; it really is about today, and it's basically about George W. Bush's domination of the world."
The lyrics from "Rumors of War" are intended to be neither allegorical nor subtle: "Sacrificing sons and daughters, rolls the war machine / The tyrant fills his destiny / The hounds of hell are freed."
Pike elaborated: "It's about a man coming to power without being fairly elected and how he's just plain dangerous, and about all his toadies--his cabinet, his father, the secret society from college, all his reptoids. It doesn't matter what shapes or sizes or positions they are in; they're all just fucking assholes, and they are putting the world in peril."
Yes, he said "reptoids." That's a reference to reptilian humanoids, long popular in UFO- and Illuminati-based conspiracy theories, such as those of David Icke, in whom Pike has expressed an interest. The song "Cyclopian Scape," from the new CD, is based on Icke's work.
Pike's bandmates are drummer Des Kensel (also an original member) and relatively new bassist Jeff Matz (formerly of Zeke), who joined during the touring following High on Fire's last album, Blessed Black Wings.
Pike has nothing but praise for the musical skills of George Rice and Joe Preston, who preceded Matz in the bass position, but neither was fully integrated into the band or wanted to "get their hands dirty," he said.
In contrast, Matz is "an extraordinary bass player, and he plays a lot of other instruments as well, and he really contributes to the writing process. For Blessed Black Wings, me and Des wrote all the material pretty much, but in this one, Jeff contributed a lot of stuff."
Pike said Matz complements the take-no-prisoners, never-compromise aesthetic that High on Fire has nurtured since its beginnings a decade ago.
"In terms of playing, we all work together really well, and can pretty much anticipate what the other one wants when we're putting together a song or a sound. We've stuck to our guns pretty much the whole time, so we feel comfortable with our vision of the band."