Back in the late ‘70s, when Matt Pike’s grandpa was singing him bedtime lullabies about serial killers and his dad was trying to cover up his weed use as the fragrance of cannabis wafted through the house, no one could have predicted that the Golden Colorado-based long-haired pre-teen with a knack for getting in trouble would become one of the most influential figures of the stoner metal movement.
Pike’s pioneering band, Sleep
, formed in San Jose, California as an offshoot of doom band Asbesdosdeath, three members of which – Pike, drummer Al Cisneros, and drummer Chris Haikus – expand their creative boundaries and approach sludgy rhythms from a different angle by forming Slee. The band prioritized dense, sludgy riffs, mesmerizing repetition, multiple rhythm shifts housed in looooong songs. Their expansive approach caught on and became groundbreaking. It didn’t start out that way.
“We were on tour with bands like Cannibal Corpse, Cathedral and Hawkwind before people really know who we were, and we had so many people in the crowds going, ‘What the fuck, man?’” Pike recalls. “We confused people. They were just like, “Dude, who the fuck are these kids with, bell-bottoms and dreads smoking marijuana in cigar wrappers. And I know we made an impact, but I think it took a long time for it to sink in 'cause, I don't think people understood it.”
Nine years into their chaos-laden career, and right when they hit critical mass with Jerusalem
, which featured just one mind-altering 72-minute long song. Fans loved it, but their label was perplexed and refused to release the album, so Sleep went on hiatus for 19 years and Pike focused intently on his faster, punk and thrash-oriented metal band High on Fire
. When they formed in 1990, High on Fire featured Pike, drummer Des Kensel, bassist George Rice (neither of whom are still in the band). Since the release of their heralded 2000 cult album The Art of Self Defense
, High on Fire have released seven raw, uncompromising records, including their most recent release, 2018’s sonic behemoth Electric Messiah
; the title track won a Grammy for Best Metal Performance.
“We started out with a whole lot of drama and then once the band drama sorted itself out, we became a unit,” Pike says. “We got into faster tempos and tribal drumming. It was kind of my attempt to see more melody and get better at singing but I didn’t really know what I wanted. I just did things and that’s the way it kind of still is. We have these rough ideas and then we just roll with them without any real idea how they’re going to turn out. All we care about is playing shit we like. We don’t think about how our last album did or what kind of shit other people are playing. We’re just High on Fire.”
Despite the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, Pike remains busy. He’s making plans for more shows with Sleep – which resurrected their career with the 2018 album The Sciences – greasing the wheels for the next High on Fire album and tour, preparing to release a solo album (which we’re not supposed to talk about) and promoting his first book, Head On a Pike: The Illustrated Lyrics of Matt Pike
. After a hectic morning capped by car troubles, Pike took a long bong hit and prepared to talk to HiBnb about his wild childhood, how cannabis and music have intertwined in his life, and the bizarre story of Sleep. We also chatted about and how High on Fire reawakened his career, his misadventures with alcohol, his amputated toe, and how he almost lost a foot.
Matt Pike: I’m kinda stoned right now if you can't tell, dude.
HiBnb: Do you usually spark up before interviews?
It’s not a requirement or anything, but earlier today I went to get some prescriptions and then my car broke down and I didn’t have time to diagnose it. I was supposed to be back for a meeting before talking to you so I walked back here and I did a bong hit. I figured the meeting would go better if I just did that.
Which did you get obsessed with first, weed or music?
I’ve always known about music. My family was very musical and they played guitar to me when I was a baby. My grandfather was from the depression and he was kind of a crazy sailor guy. He used to sing to me about this guy in the neighborhood who was kind of like Freddy Krueger and would grind up all the kids and turn them into sausages.
That must have been horrifying.
Yeah, I just think he thought it was funny. I’m a grandfather now, too, so I get it.
Did Grandpa's songs about serial killers fuel your interest in intense subject matter – like metal.
It was a lot of stuff. I had an uncle who turned me on to Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd. It was the ‘70s and my dad was listening to heavy metal and smoking weed. He didn't act like it around me – but he was getting high, for sure. So I was always hearing music and I would always smell marijuana. Later, in life, some kids were getting high and I was like, “Well, I recognize that smell.”
One of your greatest influences is Black Sabbath. How old were you when you first heard Sabbath and did they blow your mind?
It was early on and I think Sabbath was even getting airplay on the radio so I probably heard them on the radio and from my dad. But the first time I really paid attention to the band was when I was eight or nine and I started playing guitar. I realized I could make the [guitar] chords with my hands that Sabbath play and I knew I wanted to play like that. I was with this dude, Danny, the first guy I ever got stoned with. He put on [Black Sabbath’s third album] Master of Reality and that had an extreme effect on me. I think that was a critical point for a lot of other bands, too, ‘cause it’s really the roots of heavy metal along with their first two records.
When did you smoke weed for the first time?
It was that time with my friend Danny listening to Sabbath. That was the first joint I intentionally smoked. I was around pot since I was around five. You know, it was Denver, Colorado in the ‘70s so beer and weed were everywhere. So, in 1981 or 1982 I was into metal and weed. And then thrash came out. I used to go to the B&H Record Store and that’s how I found out about bands like Slayer, Exodus, and Celtic Frost.
Did you fall in love with cannabis as soon as you smoked it?
Not so much. I had a pleasant experience the first time, but then I think it made me sick – kind of like menthol cigarettes. I remember smoking all these menthol cigarettes. I would get in trouble a lot so me and all these other juvenile delinquent kids would be forced to pick up trash on the road, and this guy that was older than me kept giving me menthol cigarettes. I just remember barfing my brains out. And the same thing happened with weed.
Were you smoking shitty weed or did you ingest way too much?
There were these two Irish kids, The Flannigan Brothers, that used to deal weed. They had long hair and they were a year apart. These dudes got some Maui Wowie, which was hard to find because it came from Maui, Hawaii. It was actually green. Everything else was brown weed back then. We didn’t have enough money to get only green weed, so we’d buy a little green and bunch of brown and we’d mix them together. Then we put it in a bong and tried to decapitate ourselves. And I almost succeeded.
When you mix different strains it’s hard to tell how much THC you’ve ingested. It’s kind of like when you have pot brownies and you don’t know how much cannabis is in them or how strong they are. It can take an hour for them to him you, and by that time some people figure they didn’t eat enough to get high so they consume more. Before they know it they’re completely wasted.
Yeah, Here’s a story! There used to be a dollar matinee movie theater and right next to it was a Showbiz Pizza, which had shows and air guitar contests. All the stoner dudes hung out there. There were these tunnels underneath and you could go down in the creek and into these tunnels. We’d go through them holding lighters we stole from our parents. And then we’d come out of the manhole and be at Showbiz Pizza. I was there the first time I got hit really high on Maui Wowie. That was right when Metallica put out Master of Puppets
so that was the first time I heard it and I thought it was amazing.
That doesn’t sound like such a bad experience?
No, it was. This stuff kicked my ass and made me turn green. I started feeling really bad and I was puking at the nearby McDonalds. I called my mom from one of the neighbor’s houses to come and pick me up. I was only 13 or 14 so I couldn’t drive or anything and when she got me she found out I had been smoking dope and I had to get piss tested for the next two years.
When did you discover the transformative power weed can bring to music?
Immediately when I started understanding that the wacky tobbacky made me feel a certain way and let me step outside of my own head. It’s kind of funny. I moved to San Jose, California when I was 15. I went to Oakland all the time to see punk and thrash shows. I saw Neurosis and Melvins at the Omni. Then I moved to Oakland and I saw [Exodus’ singer] Paul Baloff all the time. I started getting a little weird and kind of like a stalker because I was hooked on The Ultimate Revenge
, [a 1985 VHS recording that featured Venom, Slayer, and Exodus live at New York’s legendary disco club Studio 54]. I was a real Baloff fan and I was kind of obsessed with the fact that he lived near me and I saw him all the time.
Did you ever hang out with him?
I was a really wild teenager and I liked to harass people. So no, he was kinda scared of me. I was this big Scottish kid going, “Hey, Dude! You’re Paul Baloff! Awesome!” I used to walk up to him and give him Tony Iommi [rock star] cards. Or I cut articles out of Hit Parader and handed them to him. And then I just walked off and didn’t talk to him because I was terrified. I was one of those dudes. They do it to me now, too. I'm getting punished, to this day, the same way. You gotta love your fans, but if they punish you that bad, you have to ditch them.
There are punk and hardcore influences in High on Fire
Yeah, ‘cause along with metal, there was all this punk happening like Black Flag and Circle Jerks. And then there were hardcore bands like Corrosion of Conformity (C.O.C.) and Bad Brains that I was really into. A babysitter turned me on to all that kind of stuff. I went to an Exploited show when I was 12 and watched all these punk rockers and skinheads beat the shit out of each other. I was like, “Wow, check out that world!”
You mentioned The Melvins, who you seem to have a lot in common with musically and philosophically.
I love those guys. It’s all about controllable volume and they just laid waste to everything. I was into them from the Gluey Porch Treatments days [back in 1987]. They were like one of my introductions to California. And I’m fortunate enough to be playing with [Melvins drummer] Coady [Willis] in High on Fire.
Did cannabis inspire you to write in a certain style?
There was weed and there and there was a lot of LSD and that’s really good for making you think of all kinds of different possibilities you can do. I used to trip balls constantly. I had a friend who went to one day of school a week. So, every week we’d get a bottle of Jim Beam, take acid and go downtown, which was a lot of fun. When he wasn’t around I’d take a bunch of acid and sit at home and play guitar all day. My mom would catch me ditching school and tripping on acid and she’d say, “This is what you’re doing with your life? Taking drugs and playing guitar?” I said, “Yeah, this is what I like.” And she said, “Well, I guess that’s all you’ll ever do with yourself. I guess this is what you’re going to do for a living, so good luck.” You know what? I was a shitty little kid.
You recently finished a solo album…
I can't elaborate on that. I made a special album. That's going to come out and I'd love to talk about it but apparently, it’s supposed to be a surprise. I mentioned it before… I'm a fucking jackass and have a big mouth.
Okay, let’s go back in time. Your first major band, Sleep blew people’s minds. Your third album, alternately titled Jerusalem and Dopesmoker, was groundbreaking – a huge inspiration to a new generation of stoner metal bands. From the start, did Sleep feel like a revelation to you?
Me and [vocalist and bassist] Al [Cisernos] have known each other since we were kids so there’s this brotherly fucking love there that gives us this weird magic when we get together. He can think of what’s going on with me and I do the same with him. We have this emotional, moody style that naturally comes out of our fingers. If one of us is in a bad mood the sound is going to be weird. If we're both in a good mood, the live set's going to be extraordinary -- or sometimes if we're both in a bad mood it’s going to be extraordinary because we find fucking energy in what we’re doing. All these different emotions affect how everything comes out. No one else really plays like that… Well, people kind of do but not always in a good way. You can't just copy Black Sabbath and Sleep's guide. You know? You can tell when it's authentic.
Dopesmoker featured a single song that went on for 72 minutes, but there were tons of different riffs within that song and motifs that you returned to that propelled the piece, which is really unparalleled and transcendent. What makes Sleep so special?
Sleep is all about style. There’s a toolbox and if you have those tools it makes sense. But it's not something that I think a lot of regular people can grasp onto, you know what I mean? It's got a balance. It's got a groove, it's got a rhythm and a particular technicality. Just ‘cause you’re good at playing prog rock doesn’t make you good at music, right? There's a proper way to play the way we do and that way is to play with the rhythm and not to bullshit.
When you came out in the early ‘90s no one sounded like you. Were people like, “What the fuck is this?”
We got more, “What the fuck, man?” when we were on tour with bands like Cannibal Corpse, Cathedral, and Hawkwind. We confused people. They were just like, “Dude, who the fuck are these kids with, bell-bottoms and dreads smoking marijuana in cigar wrappers?” I know we made an impact, but I think it took a long time for it to sink in 'cause, I don't think people understood it.
Sleep signed to London Records in 1995, but when you handed your A&R man Jerusalem he freaked out since it featured just one long song. The label told you to cut the song into a bunch of different tracks, but you refused and they shelved the album. You managed to self-release it and The Music Cartel finally put it out in stores in 1998. But you must have been crushed when London shelved Jerusalem. Soon after, you stopped playing together and focused your efforts on High on Fire.
It sucked. We wrote the album in a certain way and that’s how we wanted it to be, artistically. And they wanted to sell it like this product so they could try to get it on radio and make videos. That disgusted us. We created this special thing. We were like, “Dude, one riff is longer than most people’s songs. That says something right there.” And it did. It wasn’t a ridiculous song with no point. It had structure and intelligence in the way it was presented. Rhythmically, it’s drawn out, but it’s drawn out for a reason. But people don’t think like that and the label didn’t get it.
Did the hassles from London regarding Jerusalem burn out the band? Is that why you broke up?
No, there was, uh, internal friction in the band... We were all crazy kids, you know what I mean? There was stuff that was deeper than whatever happened with us and the music business. I'm not going to elaborate on anything, you know, but I was a little crazy and we just had personality disagreements for a while.
You kick-started High on Fire as a faster, more punk-and-thrash-influenced band in 2000 with The Art of Self Defense. Did that inject a jolt of adrenaline into you?
When I met [drummer] Des [Kensel] in 1998, he was a punk and he was really into the East Coast punk scene. He loves Cro-Mags And Slapshot, which I was also into. And it was cool because I was trying to get away from the style I played in Sleep.
How did High on Fire crowds differ from Sleep audiences? Were they rowdier and more rooted in a hardcore aesthetic? Did shit suddenly get crazy?
Not at all. People came to check out the music and watch the show. It was actually Sleep that was nuts. Once people knew who we were, they came out of the woodwork for those shows and got crazy.
You started drinking a lot in High on Fire in addition to smoking tons of weed. Do the two go hand-in-hand for you?
Actually, I smoked a bunch of weed, and then I got an alcohol problem. It didn’t happen until I was working a day job digging ditches, putting up stucco, and running up and down ladders all day. Those big old construction worker dudes I was working with are crazy. They chug a case of beer and drive home. They don’t give a fuck about shit and I picked up a drinking habit hanging out with them. I used to be, like, “Oh, I’ll either smoke weed or have a beer or two.” And then I stopped smoking weed and started drinking all night. I picked up a drinking habit like that.
You were in rehab for booze. Was alcohol more of a problem for you than weed?
Well, yeah, of course ‘cause weed is better for you and it doesn’t dehydrate you like that. It just gives you the munchies and makes you fat. Hey, I’m a poet and I didn’t know it.
Did you replace booze with weed because it was healthier?
I don't do weed every day. I do, like, microdoses of mushrooms, too. There are so many combinations and shit that I do. It’s like experimental tourism. I need certain things when I'm writing. And one day I want to see something one way, and another day I want to see it another way so I'll do whatever I can to get those emotions into the music. As long as I don't let something spiral out of control again, I’m good with that.
Were there occasions in which you spiraled out of control?
Yeah. I mean, drinking's the one thing that causes that and that’s been a hard one to overcome. I’ve gotten pretty out of control when I was drunk. I’ll say that.
Even so, you did eight High on Fire albums and toured heavily with the band between 2000 and 2018. In 2009, you played two Sleep reunion shows at the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival in England. You put out a new Sleep album, The Sciences, in 2018 played some killer tours.
I don't know. I love what I do. Our first new show was 13 years after we broke up and it was a success. It wasn’t supposed to be a big thing but we looked at each other like, “Dude, let's keep this going. It's fun. It's fun and it makes money. So who doesn’t want that job? But drummer Chris Hakius was like, “I don't want that job. I want to live in the Hills and ignore people and work on my Chevys and grow dope,” or whatever he's doing. So we started playing with Jason [Roeder in 2010].
The Sciences came out on April 20. Is 420 a significant event for you?
I mean, yeah, if only ‘cause Sleep can play lots of shows. We can get, like, eight gigs and make them all. Everyone wants us to play on 4/20, right? So we’ll play at midnight and then do more sets the next day and night. It’s the most exhausting thing ever, but we feel good afterwards… Well, we feel good when we get the paychecks.
You work hard and play hard, sometimes to your detriment. You got ill from overdoing it and had to have a toe amputated in October 2018 and were also treated for serious complications from diabetes.
I almost lost my other foot, two, but those were totally different things. First, I got a vitamin B deficiency when I was on tour and I was drinking a lot. I was chugging whiskey and was taking Prilosec for my stomach. It’s an acid blocker, but it also prevents you from absorbing vitamins, from what I know. And Vitamin B is a big factor. So, I got a really bad Vitamin B deficiency [which can cause nerve damage], and then I got neuropathy. [a symptom of which include numbness to the hands and feet]. I was on tour in England and the showers were dirty. I already had an infected toe from a previous injury but this dirty water was filled with bacteria. I cut my toe and I couldn’t feel it because of the neuropathy, and I got a really bad bone infection. When I got home I went to my podiatrist and she said she had to amputate it.
That’s awful. You said the toe incident and the issue with your other foot weren’t related? What happened the second time?
It started when I cut my toe. I didn't know my toe was cut since I couldn’t feel it [due to the neuropathy]. I went to a Russian bath spa when we were playing shows with Sleep. I was aching and I had one more show to go so I thought I’d soak my foot at the Russian bathhouse. But it was teeming with bacteria and I got E. coli and strep in my foot. I’m glad it wasn’t MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) or something. It might have been worse. So, I was trying to heal this thing but it was underneath a broken toe that I didn’t take care of and now there’s a bone in a weird position. I just had another X-ray and I saw that there’s bone dagger inside my foot pointing downward. But they’re trying all kinds of things like stem cells, which is basically a bunch of baby penises in a little gel and they stick it on your wound and it goes away in 24 hours. It’s so crazy how good that shit is. But it’s all coming along. It’s all making sense.
When did you think you might need the foot amputated?
That was on January 1, 2020. It was lucky my insurance kicked in the day that happened.
Has smoking weed helped with the pain?
Here in Portland, they’re really cool about that and there are a lot of options. I started using edibles. So I do my tincture and you can tell how much you’re taking and what strains you’re using. But sometimes I like eating it because it’s more like a medication. It’s regulated. And even CBD helps with the pain. Even though my foot is numb and you could probably carve a design on me, there’s still pain here and there. All the nerves aren’t dead, just some of them. And then your brain tells you that your foot is healed, but it’s not healed so then you need the stem cells. It’s a complicated thing but everyone’s doing what they can for me. We’ll see what happens.
When did you have time to work on the book and how did you land the deal for that?
They kind of came to me, but it wasn't exactly – ‘cause I could do an autobiography, too. But I’d have to have someone ghostwrite it because I rant and don’t always remember things in a normal way. But they kind of hit me up and I was like, “Oh, a book? Huh? Well, shit.” And that started the whole thing and came up with the direction. We started calling artists and I decided I wanted to go with the lyrics. That's my favorite thing anyways. I’m a very visual person.
The illustrations are great and add a lot to the presentation.
It was funny because I didn’t know how many songs I’ve actually written. It’s ridiculous. I was like, “Well, basically the book’s already done. All I have to do is edit it a little and check the spelling. I went through it a couple times and my wife did the layout and I hired all these artists that are all my very good friends from over the years that have done artwork for me. I wanted to give them a platform. So basically, I spent the whole budget for that book on the artists and I even paid for some of the printing beforehand. I just shoved it on a credit card and I'm like, “It's gotta get done.” But it came out awesome.