High on Fire's Matt Pike on Life After Rehab: "Every Single Day Is a Struggle"

Categories: Interview

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High on Fire, with Matt Pike at center.
One of the few bona fide six-string heroes to emerge from the Bay Area in past 20-odd years, Matt Pike has more than qualified for guitar-god credentials between his work with pioneering '90s stoner-rock trio Sleep and his continuing success fronting metal juggernaut High on Fire. Teamed with monster drummer Des Kensel since founding the trio in 1998, Pike and company have built a rabid following thanks to a relentless touring schedule and a string of modern metal classics that includes Surrounded By Thieves and Death is This Communion (their first to feature current bassist Jeff Matz).

The group experienced a setback last summer after the release of mind-bending conceptual opus De Vermiis Mysteriis, when a stint in rehab for Pike forced High on Fire to drop out of the Rockstar Mayhem Festival. However, by winter the trio had returned as brutal as ever, headlining its own successful jaunt before joining thrash veterans Anthrax and Exodus on the Metal Alliance Tour in February. The newly released concert recordings Spitting Fire Live, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 -- tracked on consecutive nights in Manhattan and Brooklyn last December -- offer ample documentation of the band's undiminished ferocity onstage.

High on Fire plays two unusual gigs this week: First at a metal fan's wet dream show at Slim's Wednesday (June 26) with Quicksand, Mastodon, Saviours, and Hot Lunch, as part of the Converse Represent concert series, and second headlining the Uptown in Oakland on Thursday (June 27). The guitarist recently spoke to All Shook Down about the tandem live discs, the challenges of sobriety, and his future plans for both High on Fire and Sleep.

What led to the decision to release the two individual albums instead of doing just a full double-CD release?

We just thought it would be interesting to release both the nights in a part one part two package, because there were a lot of songs and we did really long sets.

Looking at them, I was thinking -- since they were from headlining sets -- that you'd definitely be playing longer than 40-45 minutes. Did you cull the best songs from each night? How did the song selection sort out?

Well, we definitely did that. The first night, we played a really long set, and the second night we played a really long set with some different songs. So we had two versions of most songs from each night, and we went through and picked the best from both nights. On some of them the drums sounded better, and [on] others we thought the performance was better.

Did you bring in some songs you hadn't performed for a while? It is a really wide overview of everything you've done.

Yeah, we kind of wanted to make it a lot of our favorite songs to play and ones we hadn't played in some time, like "10,000 Years." There are a lot of songs that we hadn't played in a really long time that we wanted to get recorded. They've changed over the years when we play them live in a way. You just get better at playing songs after you've played them 150,000 times, you know? And live always has a different feel. You have a little more breathing room when you're a three-piece. A lot of my stuff I can improvise and kind of make it a little fancier.

I saw Sleep almost exactly a year ago at the Fox in Oakland just before the announcement about you going into rehab. There was nothing in your performance that gave me any indication of a problem. It was probably my favorite Sleep show of the several I've seen since the band started playing out live again. How has touring been since rehab, and how has it changed your routine?

Well, it's a process. Basically, when I went into rehab I had to face some physical addictions I've had for a really long time. I've been on and off the road constantly for 24 years, since I was 19 or 20 years old. You develop habits, and along the way I've gotten injuries. I've always been a drinker. I've always leaned towards the drinking side, even as a pothead. And it led to more drinking when I started backing off the pot. I was always a really social person and into partying, and I just developed these physical addictions that I had to overcome.

I won't be specific, but now I have to kind of deal with my mind and go to other people leading a sober lifestyle and talk to them to get advice. Relapses are inevitable. It's something that I face since I'm in a bar until 4 a.m. every night or I'm under pressure or I'm on the bus that's uncomfortable and my injuries start taking their toll.

I'm bipolar, so self-medication is an issue. If I'm having a low low or a really high high and I'm manic, my reasoning isn't always the best. I have to take all those things into consideration and -- one day at a time -- just keep myself away from the party, you know? Because if I'm in a manic, I'm going to want to go party, and if I'm depressed I'm going to want to drink because I don't want to deal with it.

Those are the issues you have to stop your brain from following through on. What keeps you sober is having those few people you can talk to who understand where you're coming from; other people who have had worse addictions than you who do the same thing and have been sober for up to 20 years. Those people have good advice. So I try to do all those things and attend AA meetings occasionally and I try to keep a clean room, just kind of keep the pipe and booze from me, so I'm not sitting there alone with a bottle of whiskey.

But it's a big process and it's been a big change in my life and a big fight. Every day is a struggle with that. Every single day is a struggle with that. But I've been managing to do really well. At first, your performance is weird because everything's so clear. You realize before, when you had your stage buzz on, that there's 2,000 [people] staring at you. When you're sober, you're like "Oh my God, all these people are staring at me!" But then you realize "Oh wait. Right, that's my job."

That sort of thing kind of goes away after a while. I do believe my playing has gotten a lot better. It's clearer to me. Not that I wasn't good before. I just have this different angle. It's been a good experiment for me to try to remain sober, you know? It's a hard thing to do though -- I'll tell you that -- in my certain profession. When my lifestyle before and my lifestyle now collide, that's when you've got to muster your strength.

Do you think you might start getting into the writing of the next High on Fire album this summer? Or do you plan on hitting the road to promote the live albums?

Well, this summer I have knee surgery, so I'm going to have a lot of time on my ass, basically. While Jeff is near me, Des is in New Orleans. I'm not going to be flying much, but hopefully me and Jeff can get a lot of work done here, and through the computer send some music back and forth [with Des]. So we'll get some writing done for when I'm back on my feet.

I have a couple of Sleep shows and a tour with High on Fire in November hopefully, if we can work that out. And by next year, we'll be well into the next record. That's how far I am in my thinking and what's in my notebook, so we have some goals and direction.

I was just reading about the show Sleep played at the Maryland Deathfest in late May. It sounded ridiculous with you guys and Venom and Pentagram all performing on the same day. How did that show go, and do you have more plans for Sleep beyond the live shows scheduled?

Yeah, that's quite possible. We have a lot of material that we'd like to get recorded. It's already written. As far as Sleep goes, we enjoy doing our fly-in shows. We like to jam together. As far as recording, hopefully we can get some stuff down a little at a time until we're finished. We don't like to put pressure on our other bands, since those are our main gigs that we do the rest of the year.

When we have time for Sleep and can plan things, it's nice to be able to do something fun and get away from the normal everyday grind of our other bands. We make a little money and come home and be satisfied that we played a really good show at the Maryland Deathfest or wherever it is. It's a good way to travel, hang out, make a little dough, and express ourselves musically in a little different way than what our other band do.

I think it's better than it ever has been, as far as the way we performed when we were kids and the way we perform now. Everybody's got a lot of experience and we all know the songs really well. It's a good sound experiment. It's really cool. It's not as technical as it is clever. It's a whole different trip. Our other bands -- Neurosis and High on Fire and Om -- are all very busy bands. Sleep, when we get together, is very relaxed and very free. I'm open to do as much guitar shit as I want as long as the song's integrity is kept by playing the riffs correctly. There's a large opportunity for me to fill a lot of gaps. It's a fun thing for me.



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