Latest release: De Vermis Mysteriis (Shock)
Band site: www.highonfire.net
Descriptors like “brutal” and “crushing” are bandied about far too often when dissecting this heavy music caper we all know and love. However, there’s little disputing the credentials of California’s High on Fire in this regard. Since their 1998 inception the metallic trio has been crafting music that’s heavier than a busload of sumo wrestlers; featuring riffs that pack more punch than Mike Tyson in his prime. Latest disc and sixth studio LP overall De Vermis Mysteriis is another devastating reminder of their considerable powers. Not even founding guitarist/vocalist Matt Pike’s recent, well-publicised rehab stint seems likely tone down the volume.
Inevitably though, there has to be a barrier, a limit to how heavy and abrasive the music they create can be. Not that drummer and founding member Des Kensel sounds too fazed when Loud inquires as to whether they feel the weight of expectation to out-heavy themselves with each ensuing record, or if such a reputation is a millstone around the band’s collective necks.
“We kinda see that,” he laughs. “But I think sometimes, it gets, I don’t want to say too challenging, but after a while you just (start) thinking, like, ‘we need to get a record out, we need to just write material, fuck it. Let’s just write a song that we’re going to be happy with’. Nine times out of ten it comes out sounding pretty heavy, so I guess that’s cool. I guess it can get heavier, but I mean, at some point, it’s our sixth record… There are a few things we try to work on. One is that we’re trying to make it interesting for us, and fun. ‘Cause if it’s not for us that’ll show in the songs and also show live. We also try to make it more technically challenging and heavier if we can. Really, as long as it’s fun; that’s the main thing.”
One wonders about their process in creating such gargantuan-sounding fare, though.
“Basically just someone will have a piece,” Kensel explains. “Whether it’s a riff or I might have a drumbeat, or just certain ideas, or an idea based off someone else’s idea. We just kinda sit around and brainstorm, jam it out. Sometimes it can go quick; sometimes it won’t,” he laughs. “Then we usually get the songs done first and then Matt will approach it for vocals. That’s always the last thing. Sometimes on the recorder I’ll do like a little drum piece or something and I’ll be like, ‘hey guys, on track 12 there’s something I did, if you’ve got an idea of something to do with it, go ahead’, and vice-versa. Like Matt or Jeff (Matz, bass) will fill me in on a certain riff. Or sometimes we’ll just sit around and do with it through a regular jam session, some improvisation.”
Yes, the riffage; the hallmark of Pike’s career in both High on Fire and reactivated stoner/doom pioneers Sleep. Kensel pauses for reflection when asked about his favourite riffs from the band’s career thus far, eventually name-checking the Hell Awaits-esque riff in the middle of “Fertile Green”, “Madness of an Architect”, (“Matt and I came up with this riff years ago, we call it the ‘Wino riff’”) and the conclusion to “Master of Fists” (inspired by a scene in Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury whereby the legendary martial artist seemingly barbecues and eats a cat) as career highlights.
While riffs are a cornerstone of High on Fire’s appeal, their latest, Kurt Ballou-produced disc also incorporates a fantastical, detailed concept drawing inspiration from the likes of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and cult television show Quantum Leap.
“This one Matt had a couple of ideas for themes going as we were writing. He was just kinda shooting off these ideas the whole time we were writing songs. Like, Jesus’ twin brother who was separated at birth. And we were like, ‘yeah, sounds cool man, whatever’,” he laughs. “And make a potion from the black lotus; ‘yeah, sure, sounds cool’,” he adds, laughing again. “So we like mixed them all in together where they sort of turned out this fucking crazy theme that’s on the record. It’s cool imagery and I think it works.”
Indeed it does and the resulting record is bound for many a critical and fan top ten at 2012’s conclusion. Loud remarks that it’s encouraging that even in the digital age, whereby music is seemingly free and therefore ultimately far more dispensable for many listeners, that a band can create an overall package like De Vermis Mysteriis. Aside from the lyrical approach which encourages fans to invest the appropriate amount of time in the record, the physical product includes incredible artwork and overall presentation.
“As musicians, or as artists, when you’re in a band and you’re making music, you want to have an image or vision to go along with it,” Kensel responds. “Because you’re obviously sitting down and listening to music and it’s going to affect each person in a different way. But with the lyrics and different artwork we put together this whole theme for it. I think it needs to be there; I mean, yeah, you can download a song and you can always get a big, full screen jpeg of the artwork. The lyrics I guess you’ve got to go to a different website and look them up or whatever. But I think it’s still necessary; it could get to the point where bands are just making the music just for downloading and no one’s doing artwork anymore. I mean, that’ll suck,” he spits. “Will that happen? Maybe one day it will. But you know, once you’ve done the artwork you make merchandise, and everyone, thank god, is still buying band shirts. You can’t download that yet.”
What does he think of the possible future some industry figures have touted, whereby full-length albums will become obsolete and bands will instead release a song or two at a time?
“I have no idea what direction the music industry is going in, because nowadays, most of everyone can write a song in their fucking bedroom, you know? You have GarageBand or what have you. But you still have to be able to play live. Everyone has that one show they went to that was almost life-changing – like holy shit. So hopefully that won’t change. I know we’re not making any money on our records.”
On the topic of life-altering live experiences, the drummer says there were a few that shaped his career direction.
“My first concert I went to was Mötley Crüe, so when I saw that it was like, ‘this is fucking awesome man, fucking heavy metal’,” he laughs while adopting a stereotypical 80s metal-head inflection. “I saw Pink Floyd, and that was just like the whole show, almost like going to the theatre. Just super loud and shit flying everywhere; lasers flying over my head and this crazy light show. My first hardcore punk show was Sick of it All. That definitely took me in a different direction as far as a genre, and the whole stage diving thing was awesome.”
It’s also an enthralling prospect to him that for someone out there, a High on Fire show may not only be their first concert experience, but could also be a life-changing one, too.
“That’s awesome. If there’s anything that we can take to our grave with this band, it’s just knowing that maybe we changed some people’s lives or got them into other music like other bands have done for me. At least we have that; we may not have a cool car or a big house,” he laughs. “But we did it our way and turned some heads.”
The band makes their third trek to Australia this month. As opposed to the abbreviated support slots or festival sets of previous visits (or in the case of their appearance at the Sydney leg of Soundwave, being plagued by technical difficulties), fans will get a suitably extended display. There won’t be many bells and whistles though; Loud suggests such a no-frills approach suits the band best anyway.
“(It’ll be) a full set; a variety of stuff from our records and just a really solid, tight and loud live show. We don’t have the budget to have things flying about like Pink Floyd, but we’ll do our best,” he laughs. “That’s more our style; just pack it into a club, get it hot and sweaty and rock out.”
You can catch High on Fire on the following dates-
28/9: Esplanade Hotel, Melbourne VIC (+ Summonus)
29/9: Manning Bar, Sydney NSW (+ Summonus)
30/9: The Zoo, Brisbane QLD (+ Shellfin)