High on Fire: The Psychedelic Visions and Esoteric Wisdom of Matt Pike | Revolver

High on Fire: The Psychedelic Visions and Esoteric Wisdom of Matt Pike

How HOF and Sleep's riff master harnesses acid trips, conspiracy theories and dream logic for his primal stoner metal
high on fire SCANLON 2018, Kevin Scanlon
High on Fire's Matt Pike, 2018
photograph by Kevin Scanlon

Matt Pike has a dream. Well, he had a dream, anyway. In it, Lemmy dropped by to discuss the future. The infamous Motörhead mastermind was already in rock & roll Valhalla when this happened, but that doesn't matter because it was a dream. There was some cosmic precedent, though: As guitarist, vocalist and lyricist for High on Fire, Pike has a raspy voice and proclivity for hard living that have drawn many comparisons to Lemmy. Then there's the fact that High on Fire, like Motörhead for most of their career, are a power trio that delivers bruising metal anthems in an instantly recognizable style. In fact, Pike and Mr. Kilmister spent some quality time together over the last two decades. High on Fire toured and played with Motörhead more than a few times, and Pike even interviewed the mutton-chopped messiah in these very pages back in October 2006.

"He was a big influence on me, and people used to tell me that I was like the American Lemmy because I have a raspy voice and I had a handlebar mustache and I sing and play," Pike observes. "I always felt I was a very different musician and a very different person, but I'll always take that as a compliment. I'll never be Lemmy Kilmister. I couldn't even shine his boots without feeling weird about it."

But back to this dream: Not long before Lemmy passed away in late 2015, Pike went on a camping trip with a friend. They rented an RV and did a little dark tourism on the West Coast. They visited the reputed Manson Family Cave in the Santa Susana Mountains of California. They visited the site of the San Ysidro McDonald's massacre, where a crazed gunman killed 21 people and wounded 19 others at a Mickey D's in the San Diego neighborhood in 1984. When they heard the news that Motörhead's leading light had been snuffed out, Pike and his travel companion were engaged in one of Lemmy's favorite activities: hanging out in a bar. "I had all this angst and anxiety about people thinking I wanted to be the next Lemmy now that he died," Pike recalls. "I thought I was gonna get pushed into it. So I had this dream where he was hazing me and saying I'd never usurp his throne, but he was also telling me to go down my own path and do things my way and carry the torch the right way. Be Matt Pike — don't try to be Lemmy Kilmister."The result of this dream is the title track of High on Fire's eighth and latest album, Electric Messiah. "I thought Lemmy deserved a High on Fire song, so 'Electric Messiah' is our homage to him," Pike says. "But the original working title was 'Insect Workout With Lemmy.'"

As High on Fire albums go, Electric Messiah is especially vicious and kinetic. With songs about witch burnings, canine cryptids and a two-part rock opera based on Sumerian creation myths, the LP boasts some of the band's most dynamic and vertiginous work. In a 20-year catalog packed with roaring stoner-metal classics like Surrounded by Thieves, Blessed Black Wings and Death Is This Communion, Pike and his bandmates — drummer Des Kensel and bassist Jeff Matz — may just have outdone themselves. "It's a rejuvenation," Pike says of the new record. "I was so happy when some of this music started coming together. It's the baddest shit we've ever done."

Pike partly credits this rejuvenation to his recent move from the Bay Area — where he lived for nearly 30 years — to Portland, Oregon. "I'm glad I got out of there," he says of his old stomping grounds. "I love my friends in the Bay Area and I loved living there for as long as I did, but they've turned that place into a shithole. Everybody is either addicted to heroin or poor as shit and living on the street. They've made it impossible for humanity to live there unless you're in the upper one percent."

Portland, on the other hand, has worked wonders for him. "I'm a lot less depressed," he enthuses. "I'm much more creative. I get a lot more work done, and I'm a lot happier in general. I'm near the mountains and the volcanoes here. I like being able to pull into my driveway and walk in and put my groceries down. And I can have a cool car and it doesn't get fuckin' keyed."

The cool car is important. In fact, we're fishtailing across Portland in Pike's '78 El Camino right now. It's got a 383 Stroker motor and no door handles. As 500 horsepower send us flailing around another corner, Pike cackles with glee. "This is my toy," he says. "I've always wanted one. Now that Sleep is making some money, I finally have one."

Sleep would be Pike's other band. Now regarded as doom demigods, they were greeted with all the enthusiasm of a fart in an elevator when they brought their slow Sabbathian riffs and red-eyed weed worship to a heavy-music microcosm obsessed with thrash and death metal in 1990. Founded by Pike, bassist-vocalist Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Hakius, the trio unfurled two bleary, stoned-to-the-bone albums before somehow signing with a major label and recording a legendary — and legendarily suicidal — 52-minute album comprised of just one song. To absolutely no one's surprise, the record was shelved and the band went belly up before Jerusalem eventually saw the light of day in 1998. By then, Pike had started High on Fire, while Cisneros and Hakius eventually formed the drone duo Om.

high on fire full band SCANLON 2018, Kevin Scanlon
High on Fire, 2018
photograph by Kevin Scanlon

When Sleep unexpectedly reformed in 2009 — with Jason Roeder of Neurosis replacing Hakius on drums — they tapped into a massive, eternally baked fanbase that had accrued in their decade-plus absence. "Sleep is an anomaly — a phenomenon," Pike says. "That band did something a long time ago, and nobody paid attention to us then. Now, there's this whole fucking cult subgenre, and I'm glad it's there. We're very fortunate to have a project that we enjoy doing and that makes money. We can afford some things that we couldn't when we were all sleeping on couches or at the practice space. I'm not rich in any way, shape or form, but I'm making a living doing something I love, something I need to be doing. What good would I be digging ditches or fucking bouncing at a bar or driving a fucking Lyft? I'd be doing no good for the world."

The reformed Sleep unleashed a one-sided 12-inch single called "The Clarity" in 2014. Then, earlier this year — on 4/20 to be exact — they dropped a surprise new album entitled The Sciences. There were no announcements, no press releases and no interviews prior to its release. The only clue was a Morse code message sent out via the band's social media. ("Only like two of our fans deciphered it," Pike says.) For all intents and purposes, The Sciences just appeared out of the clear blue sky, debuting at No. 49 on the Billboard charts. "I never thought I'd be in a band that's on the fucking charts," Pike marvels. "I don't even play music that should be on the charts, you know? But that was the best way to release a fucking record ever. It definitely got noticed. People woke up and it was there with their breakfast."

Pike pulls the El Camino under a stand of trees across from Joseph Wood Hill Park, a battlement that provides a 360-degree view of Portland. Built in 1935, the park sits atop an inactive volcanic cinder cone butte that's part of the Boring Lava Field, a group of over 30 volcanic cones throughout Oregon and Washington. The park's namesake founded a military academy in Portland in 1901. Pike knows a thing or two about military school. He attended one while growing up in Golden, Colorado. He also dropped a lot of acid.

"From the ages of 12 to 17, I was heavily into acid," he says as he lights another cigarette. "Then I did a brief bout of juvenile hall and military school where I didn't do any. Then I moved to the Bay Area and still didn't do any for a few years. Then I got a connection and I started selling acid and working at Togo's."

When he wasn't slinging sandwiches, Pike was frying on LSD and learning his instrument. "The whole time I was dropping acid and ditching school every day, I was playing guitar," he explains. "I was playing for hours and hours and exploring every nook and cranny of my abilities and my strange thoughts about the world — my ability to see things and audibly transform my visions. Yeah, LSD played a big part in how I play and who I am. It's a good way of having an outsider's look inside yourself."

Now 46 years old, Pike says he last took LSD a couple of months ago. "I get really, really good liquid acid," he says. "I get some riffs from jamming while I'm high, but most of the time me and my girlfriend fuck and create flesh portals. We get weird on it. She's an artist and musician, too. So we'll do that or we'll listen to music and draw and just be weirdos. I take 'shrooms sometimes, too. It's a good way of hitting the reset button."

A recent acid excursion helped inspire lyrics for one of Electric Messiah's standout tracks, "The Witch and the Christ." "The song is about a Puritan priest who burns a witch and she curses him to become a dog man, a cryptid," Pike explains. "I've been listening to all this shit about dog men and cryptids. We don't know if they're a species, but people see these things that are as tall as Bigfoot and they're fucking terrifying. People have been disappearing in national parks, and some people think aliens or dog men are eating them — even the bones. It could be a conspiracy theory, but the fact that so many people claim to have seen one and describe their encounters the same way is kinda horrifying."

LSD also played a role in manifesting Electric Messiah's aforementioned Sumerian rock opera, "Steps of the Ziggurat/House Of Enlil." "I've always been very into ancient Sumer, the cuneiform texts and the Sumerians' relationship with their gods, the Anunnaki," Pike offers. He goes on to expound upon the writings of prominent British conspiracy theorist David Icke, who asserts that a secret race of shape-shifting reptilian humanoids control global politics: "Icke believes the Anunnaki were reptilians, but I believe the reptilians were here before the Anunnaki came."

Pike is quick to add that he's not sure if what he just said is actually true. "I wasn't there, so I don't know," he concedes. "I can't time travel, so I just have theories about certain things. You can put a tin foil hat on my head, but I don't necessarily believe everything I write about. It's all based on things that I could perceive as possible."

"I was always into the strange mysteries of the earth. Aliens, monoliths, things that no one can explain," Pike says, taking a pull of his latest cigarette. "I'm a true seeker — I need to know."