High On Fire Aren’t Resisting A Slow-Burn 

Jen Rosenstein

When High on Fire won the Grammy Award for the best metal performance for their song “Electric Messiah” —one of the rare moments when the awards took a careful look at a genre and got it right—during their acceptance speech, Matt Pike affirmed what everyone already knew. 

“We never really needed an award for doing what we loved,” he explained during an untelevised speech. 

Eight months later, a palpable sense of surreality still remains for the Denver-born, now Portland-based musician, known for his gregarious swagger, and for launching two of America’s most critically beloved metal bands as the frontman of High on Fire, and the guitarist in Sleep. 

“I didn’t expect to win a Grammy,” he muses from Amsterdam over the phone before soundcheck. “It’s far beyond what I thought was gonna happen. [Wins like] that don’t happen that often, you know what I mean?” 

Long before the recognition of the gold-plated institution, High on Fire (now the project of Pike and bassist Jeff Matz following the departure of founding member of Des Kensel earlier this year) had already spent over two decades helping build and fortify the foundation of contemporary metal. 

It’s not shocking that Electric Messiah would bring the band widespread attention. The album is a high-octane gunshow, utilizing the familiar mechanics of old-school death metal with a heavy dose of speed, to emphasize the band’s unyielding dexterity, and relentless pursuit as curious surveyors of the genre

But despite their obvious success, 2019 has been mired with challenges. In early January, as an active measure to prevent the amputation of Matt Pike’s big toe as a result of a complication of diabetes, they had to postpone their tour. He was ordered off his feet. 

“It’s just been a rollercoaster ride,” he recalls, now on the mend, and in the middle of their rescheduled tour. “I spent more time at home this last year than I had in a long time. I’m not good at not doing anything. I just played a lot of guitar, and did research on weird-ass shit that I get into.”

Pike pauses, then has a revelation: “I should just write a book.” 

When probed on the subject matter, he’s already been ruminating on the contents. “I’m thinking about it, but I might get sued ten different ways given my big mouth” he laughs. If he did, Pike might consider a memoir of sorts (“my life’s pretty trippy”) or a sci-fi book. He considers blending both which wouldn’t be a departure from his typical songwriting style. “That’s what I do lyrically. Same thing, only more words, and less hi-hat.”

For this tour, Pike is rewiring what it means to be on the road — he’s learning how to take care of himself. Without the aid of whisky and hot toddies, a method he’s been using for years to warm up his voice, he’s had to get creative: “My singing warmup on the way to practice is Soundgarden’s “Badmotorfinger” and I’m like ‘yeah if I can hit those notes,’ even if I sound like an idiot in the car, my pipes are pretty warmed up.” 

For the formerly high-flying frontman, infamously known for a larger than life personality, and a lifestyle to match, he’s changed his pace, rather than slowing down. “I don’t party like I used to and I do better when I have a routine. After years of hard living, Pike has pivoted: “I take it easy.”

Pike’s new approach to touring, where he’s visiting cities that he knows well (“I’ve been everywhere so much that I haven’t really been surprised by much in a long time) rings of an approach to self-sustainability that feels universally applicable. Like everyone else. Pike benefits from following a schedule of his own design, and figuring out how to be his own center of gravity while navigating the rigors of working while recovering. 

“I walk around town and do something, grab some food and go to soundcheck, and then take a nap, or fuck off for a while and read or something,” he shares. “[I] play the show, see whatever friends I have in town or whatever, maybe hang out for a little bit. That’s how I’ve been rolling for a long time.

“It’s like that saying ‘wherever you go, there you are.’ That’s exactly it.”

After wrapping their 2019 tour with Power Trip and Devil Master, next year will bring another rare moment of pause for Pike, and the first significant one in years. “I’m taking a lot of that year off of touring, and I’m gonna put it into just creative thought. I’m taking some time to just write, and move forward with High on Fire. Probably take some vacations for inspiration.”

He’s not sharing what’s working on now with good reason. “I don’t want people jacking my shit. People have a tendency to plagiarize nowadays so I’d rather keep it under wraps until after I’m done with it, then they can plagiarize it all they want.” 

A week before our phone call his granddaughter was born. Thousands of miles away, and through a scratchy phone connection, Pike’s voice softens and curls and the corners when he brings her up. “Shit feels crazy,” he says with a laugh. “I’m a cool grandpa. I wanna teach her guitar and survival skills. 

“One of my favourite things to do is to just shut my shit off and go to the hills, and shoot things. When she’s old enough I want to take her into the forest. I don’t want her to have a cell phone before she can learn how to be a human.“

High On Fire play Club Soda (Montréal) Sunday, Nov. 24; Danforth Music Hall (Toronto) Monday, Nov. 25; and at the Rickshaw Theatre (Vancouver) Monday, Dec. 2. Tix: $30 – $35, ticketmaster.com.