High On Fire: “It feels like a storm has been building… and now sh*t’s hitting the fan”

After 25 years, High On Fire have little left to prove. Roaring back with ferocious ninth album Cometh The Storm, however, frontman Matt Pike and bassist Jeff Matz tell us about why they’ve got to keep pushing limits, learning Turkish instruments, and how the state of the world continues to feed their music…

High On Fire: “It feels like a storm has been building… and now sh*t’s hitting the fan”
Sam Law
James Rexroad

The world hasn’t become a significantly better place over the 25-and-a-bit-years that High On Fire have been band. The old favourites – War, Famine, Disease, Death – are all present and correct. But now we can add new heralds of the apocalypse: unprecedented division, misinformation, environmental disaster and cold-hearted apathy. Year by year, humanity is becoming less humane; those with power and influence less interested in steering us towards any kind of brighter future.

Having been sidelined by ill-health and COVID-circumstance for the best part of the last half-decade, the Californian sludge-metallers’ frontman Matt Pike and multi-talented bassist Jeff Matz have marinated in that atmosphere in and are back to spit it out on ninth album Cometh The Storm, due out on April 19.

“It’s definitely the right subject matter for heavy music,” Jeff smiles wryly, peering out at slate-grey skies with his frontman in Vancouver, WA. More than that, it’s motivation to live every moment and seize every opportunity to fight back the hell unfolding around us.

Having nabbed a Best Metal Performance GRAMMY for 2018’s Electric Messiah, and just marked a milestone birthday of their titanic debut The Art Of Self Defense, it’s about proving High On Fire are more relevant than ever...

The five-and-a-half year gap since Electric Messiah makes this by far the longest-gestated album of High On Fire’s career. How is Cometh The Storm a product of that time away?
Matt: “It’s about us figuring out how to reinvent ourselves after COVID. We’re just taking our skills and moving them forward. [Longtime drummer] Des [Kensel] took a sabbatical because of his family. We’re utilising the skill set of new drummer Coady Willis. We’re incorporating some of the interesting musical styles that Jeff has been studying. And, personally, I’m just sharpening my toolset that fits into that blueprint. It’s definitely High On Fire, but with some twists and turns!”

What is the coming storm to which the title alludes?
Matt: “Mostly, it’s about reinventing ourselves: building our machine back up after a few years away. But it’s also about [what’s been happening in the world]. People are wandering around, talking about nuclear war as if it’s casual – ‘Oh, it’s just nuclear war!’ Environmentalism doesn’t seem to be doing any good for the environment – or us. It feels like there has been a big storm building since before COVID and now shit’s hitting the fan. We’re just singing about the times!”

As much as that sucks for humankind, does it make good fuel for High On Fire?
Matt: “I’ve been talking about this shit for 30 years (laughs). But I also want there to be hope and a wake-up call for people to look at ourselves in the mirror and ask, ‘What the fuck are we doing?!’ Between war all over the planet, crazy new technologies and people casually mentioning horrible things that are happening all over the planet as if they’re not even true, it feels like we need to take a step back for a minute and look at ourselves. That’s the purpose of Cometh The Storm.”

Does lead single Burning Down feel like a particularly pessimistic piece?
Matt: “To a degree. A lot of that song is directed at the World Economic Forum and those in charge who see us normal people as useless: just [machines for] eating and shitting. It’s directed at a lot of hypocritical billionaires who talk about making the world greener while they’re doing nothing of the sort, flying around in their private jets and telling us that we need to eat insects. At the same time, I’m really not trying to be ‘Captain Bring-down’. I’m just trying to make people aware and to us ask themselves what’s ethical or moral, and what’s really just ridiculous! Lies pile up, but there’s always a truth. And that truth starts with looking at yourself before those around you!”

Musically, it’s a change of pace to Electric Messiah, for which you won a GRAMMY...
Jeff: “We didn’t think the GRAMMY was going to happen. We had a very pessimistic view of our chances of winning. So it was quite a shock when we ended up winning!”
Matt: “I was hanging out at the back of the amphitheatre thinking, ‘I’m just honoured to be here!’”

Having seen that kind of success, other musicians might’ve tried to recapture that same momentum. What influenced your return to a sludgier, doomier, ‘classic High On Fire’ sound?
Matt: “We have our toolbox. In terms of how we structure songs and the backbone of the band, we’re always using the same set of wrenches to build the car. Within that, we have several kinds of blueprint, but it’s always going to sound like High On Fire in the end, whether we have [fast parts] or it’s more old-style. We try for a good mix – and to advance what we’re doing at the same time.”
Jeff: “It wasn’t a conscious direction to go in one direction or another. Our albums tend to manifest in a very organic way. We’ll have a pool of material that we’re working on collectively and individually, and it’s only when we begin to jam that together that the songs start to form. Having Coady in the mix has changed the chemistry, too. He has a very specific style of drumming, and so much of our songwriting is about how we react to one another as we’re throwing these ideas around in the jam-room. This is classic High On Fire with some interesting new influences...”

Among those more pronounced influences is a broad streak of Middle Eastern melody, with Jeff even contributing on the Turkish saz. What drove your interest in exploring those sounds?
Jeff: “I got really interested in a lot of different types of Middle Eastern and non-Western music around the time I joined High On Fire in 2006. My roommate Rich [Doucette] was playing in the band Secret Chiefs 3 and he was always listening to really amazing stuff – all this wild music coming out of his room – so I told him that he had to show me. Look at Khanrad’s Wall from Death Is This Communion: that was my first real foray into trying to incorporate more traditional sounds. It’s stuck with me for years, and those kinds of melodies and sounds have always crept back into my writing.
“Around 2019, I decided I wanted to take that study more seriously and I kinda’ isolated the Turkish influence to focus on. I started studying the Bağlama – the saz – pretty intensely and found a teacher in Istanbul online. I dove in headfirst and really committed myself: taking two or three lessons a week and learning a lot of traditional folk tunes. That music has always captivated me, so learning about the nuts and bolts has been huge here, not just in the inclusion of the traditional instruments, but in the way that I write on guitar and bass, too. I’ve travelled to Turkey twice now and done some intense study sessions with classical musicians. It’s been quite a journey. Its such a rich musical tradition that pairs really well with the kind of heavy music that High On Fire plays.”
Matt: “Even for me, having an understanding of that and incorporating it in what I play – with the semitones and Eastern scales that you don’t really get in Western music – as well as trying to paint layers on top of what Jeff has brought to the table has had quite a profound effect on this album.”

Learning a new spoken language can rewrite the way you think. Is the same true of music?
Jeff: “I think so. In my experience, it’s that all of my old influences are still there, but there are so many new colours in the palette. With High On Fire, though, that influence and that style of sound has always been present to some extent in the riffs that Matt writes. If you look at something like the intro of To Cross The Bridge off 2005’s Blessed Black Wings, it’s already very Eastern-sounding!”

Matt, did 2022’s Pike vs The Automaton album have a bearing on the music that made it to this album?
Matt: “I was kinda going for more of a different thing with that, focusing more on D-beat and actual blues sounds. I did a song with Brent Hinds from Mastodon and another with Todd Burdette from Tragedy. Although it was still my voice and my guitar tone and my riffs, I think it was really very different to High on Fire. I was honing in on my roots and what kind of music I would do that wouldn’t necessarily fit with High On Fire. It was my ‘COVID band’, experimenting with different styles. I basically got together just with a drummer and different people came in. Even Jeff is on there playing the saz. It was just something fun to do and to keep my mind busy. In terms of how it affected High On Fire, it really just kept my chops up and my creativity flowing.”

Has the darkness and doominess of the COVID experience bled into the music?
Jeff: “It was an incredibly challenging time for various of reasons. The frustration and difficulties that we encountered came through in the riffs and the aggressive, dark, heavy atmosphere.”
Matt: “No-one had seen the world just shut down like that before. I think that was shocking to every human being on Earth. And I’m still trying to dig myself out of the hole that we called COVID. Financially, it crushed everybody that I know. And it made people aware of how the narrative of the people in high-up positions – whether it be correct or not – can affect the whole world.”

On a more celebratory note, does it feel like an apt record to mark of 25 years of High On Fire?
Jeff: “Particularly since Electric Messiah, there have been a lot of ups and downs. But we’re coming at it with a renewed energy. Coady has brought a renewed energy. The new material that we’ve written has given us a good feeling about moving to the future. We’re excited to see what it holds.”
Matt: “It’s both celebratory and forward-looking. It celebrates the past and everything that we’ve been through thus-far, but there’s also a need to make something very progressive that we’re able to move forward on. Musically, it’s very ambitious. We’re still working on learning these songs to be able to perform them live. We look at this as a challenge – and we’ll come out swinging.”

How has your creative process changed much?
Matt: “I guess having Coady makes the process a little different. He’s left handed so my beat-process was a little backwards because his cymbals are on the wrongs side for my ear (laughs). But, no, there’s the same soul and same work-ethic to the band. This album has manifested the way that it has and I’m just very happy that it did. I can’t wait to get out there and play it live.”

After all this time, what are your ambitions? What more do you have left to achieve?
Jeff: “I try not to have too many expectations, but it’ll be great to get back out there and hit it hard with some fresh material. And to celebrate still being a band after all these years!”
Matt: “We just want to roll out on the road and destroy everything, to make people feel something and, hopefully, to catch up on a bunch of bills… (laughs)”

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