High Voltage: An Interview with Matt Pike

Article by Zach Sokol

The musician Matt Pike shouldn’t require an introduction. The world is a little fucked up, though — as he’ll be the first to tell you — and the virtuosos who walk among us usually don’t get their due until it’s too late and they’re already six feet under. Pike deserves better, and anyone who knows the difference between a blast-beat and break-beat would agree that the metal maestro should be a household name by now.

But for those who have never carved an anarchy symbol into a desk, Pike is essentially your favorite headbanger’s favorite headbanger, a guitar guru if there ever was one. As a founding member of both Sleep and High on Fire, the 46-year-old has spent the last quarter-century eviscerating eardrums and unleashing riffs that have shaped the contours of contemporary metal. Without him, “stoner metal” wouldn’t have a Wikipedia page, and thrash might never have had a twenty-first century renaissance.

Both Bay-area bands, despite their stark differences, have cultish followings, and the legacy surrounding their music has been passed from dorm room to dorm room, record shop to record shop, over the years, making Pike something like the Alejandro Jodorowsky of the fretboard. After all, taking a cue from the title of Jodorowsky’s trippiest film, Sleep named its second album Holy Mountain (1992), and the creation story of Dopesmoker — the trio’s infamous hour-long song/album about a cosmic caravan of “Weedians” sludging through a “riff-filled land” on the way to Nazareth — has developed the type of feverish mythology usually reserved for midnight movies or conversations about Elvis’s current whereabouts.

Pike’s most recent trip around the sun might elevate his status outside the metal underground, though. 2018 has seen Sleep awaken from a mighty hibernation with the release of The Sciences, the group’s critically acclaimed fourth full-length and its first since Dopesmoker. (Naturally, the album dropped on 4/20, courtesy of Jack White’s Third Man Records.) And this month, High on Fire will release Electric Messiah, the band’s eighth LP and its best in years. Packed with the types of speed anthems that should soundtrack a bank robbery or coup, Pike believes the record has the potential to swell the group’s audience to its rightful size. “This album’s definitely got the material to do it,” he told Penthouse over two long and epic interviews as he was wrapping a set of High on Fire shows in Las Vegas this past summer.

Sleep might be compared to Black Sabbath (if drowned in cough syrup), and, as frontman of High on Fire, Pike is regularly described as the American Lemmy Kilmister. But, in reality, the metal lord has carved his own path and sounds like nothing other than Matt Pike. If the guy doesn’t receive some sort of monument during his lifetime, then maybe he’s right that humanity is truly on a “spiritual downward spiral.”