Matt Pike of Sleep and High On Fire Talks Solo Debut, Prog-rock Favorites, Creative Process and More (INTERVIEW)

Photo credit: Juan Carlos Carceres

Matt Pike has spent much of the last two years tinkering away in his garage in Portland, Oregon. Bummed to be off the road with his main bands – high-speed shredders High On Fire and pioneering stoner metal outfit Sleep – the guitarist made the best of it and recorded a solo album. Due out February 18th, Pike vs. the Automation finds one of the most badass rockers on this planet striking out on his own. While the album definitely skews more towards the cranked up metal of High On Fire than the more atmospheric work of Sleep, it also marks a departure for Pike as he incorporates elements of psych-rock, prog, blues, country, and soul.

Though it is billed as a solo album, Pike will be the first to say that it was a collaborative effort. He teamed up with drummer Jon Reid as well as a handful of family and friends, perhaps most notably enlisting Billy Anderson, the producer who channeled some of Pike’s finest moments on Surrounded by Thieves and Sleep’s Holy Mountain. Other guest musicians include Alyssa Maucere-Pike (Lord Dying / Grigax), Chad “Chief” Hartgrave, Brent Hinds (Mastodon), Steve McPeeks (West End Motel), Josh Greene (El Cerdo), Todd Burdette (Tragedy), and High On Fire’s Jeff Matz. All of this results in a compellingly heavy album that finds Pike’s trademark brutality on guitar and vocals alive and well on colorfully named songs like “Alien Slut Mum,” “Acid Test Zone,” and “Latin American Geological Formation.”   

To hear Pike tell it, making a solo album was driven partly by the obvious circumstances we have all been dealing with, and also as a way to preserve his sanity and stay creative while forced off the road. Recently, Pike took the time to chat about the making of the album, the music he was listening to while making it, embracing the collaborative spirit with old friends, whether we can expect to see him perform the songs live, and more.

What took you so long to make a solo album? Did the pandemic lead to it?

Yeah, it was definitely Covid that lead to it. Fortunately, Covid gave me enough time to really get an album done where there [wasn’t] a deadline. It was just me and a buddy and we were sick of not playing. We didn’t have a solid drummer thing going on for High On Fire at the time, and I’d get together with Jeff [Matz] and we’d have to wear masks because he had an elderly person living with him and we didn’t want to risk her. It just wasn’t happening and I think we were all going nuts. Jeff learned the Turkish electric saz over time, and he was taking lessons from different guru saws players in Turkey. He learned all the traditional music and even started speaking some of their languages. Pretty amazing dude. Jon [Reid] works at a paint store but he’s an excellent fucking drummer and I was like, ‘dude you need to just come over and jam and we’ll start putting shit together.’ Once we got a few songs, I asked Billy Anderson who I hadn’t worked with in years – me and him always had a real good rapport working together – we put together what is now known as Pike Vs. the Automation. I just kept working on it because I had nothing but time. We recorded the songs in the big room and then Billy has a little studio in his basement, I have one in my garage, and between all that we were just doing tracks here and there. Every Wednesday or Thursday I’d get more of the album done. It turned into something cool.

In terms of the creative process, were you cutting these tracks live? I know you have some interesting guest appearances too.

I had Todd [Burdette] come in and do his tracks separate from mine. The way I was writing, I was writing on whoever was on the track’s strengths. For instance, with Todd (who is in Tragedy, one of my favorite bands), I wrote a song that was very Tragedy-esque and was kind of Motorhead-y. Then I gave him spaces to sing and play guitar, put his vocals on mine, and it turned out awesome because I just gave him spaces, like ‘that whole section is yours and that one is yours, do what you want.’ If you trust the people you’re writing with – because they’re professional too – that’s that. Same thing with Brent Hinds, I had my wife play on it, I had my best friend Keith who was the sound man for High On Fire and guitar tech for Sleep forever come down and play some bass. I played some bass on it, my wife sang on it – I just had whoever was around doing different things.

Sounds like it was pretty collaborative.  

I kind of wanted it like that. I wanted to do a lot of instruments and percussion, a lot of messing around. It’s like, if you’re in Celtic Frost and you use Frank Zappa’s style of composing with 800 instruments. We were trying to add everything we could that would work and made things different.

This album is psychedelic rock in some places, even more so than metal. Are there any psych rock bands outside of metal that you are especially a fan of and may have been channeling on this record?

Yeah, a lot of them. Definitely early Pink Floyd, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock. Some of the more contemporary jazz fusion guys, that proggy era where everybody started getting really crazy with musicianship. Stuff like that brings it out of you, and not so much learning their song or covering it. [This Turkish band] Socrates Drank The Conium is just outstanding, Steve Hillage, there’s just some crazy prog dudes that I’ll listen to and it gives me a little inspiration. Then the same ones are there – the Sabbath, the Hendrix, Zeppelin, relative to anything. Then, like fucking Extreme Noise Terror, that whole style of punk rock crossover hardcore. Oh yeah, Terrorizer. I just listened to that the other day and I forgot about it and was like World Downfall, that’s fucking awesome [laughs.

Then you have that song “Land” that’s totally blues or country.

It’s a two-step, but I tried to make the singing sound like Motown, like soul singers in a subway where the reverb was. I tried to emulate voice harmonies on that, really messing around with substructure in two completely different genres of music – country and Motown. Even though, if you really recognize, they’re all from the same place.

What did Billy Anderson bring to the table this time around?

Great sound. And puns, he’s a pun master. Like you can’t say anything without that guy making a pun out of it [laughs]. It’s like a bad habit at certain points, it’s fucking hilarious. Me and him didn’t work with each other for a really long time – it wasn’t a major falling out – but we had a little bit of a falling out and just didn’t talk to each other for a long time. Then I moved up to Portland and I kept running into him, so I was like ‘yeah, ok,’ so we made up any differences that we did have and I included him on this album. He’s really good at like the 90s psychedelic sample stuff. When me and him sit around and think real hard, we can make things like, ‘what the fuck?’ It’s so crazy. He brought a lot to the table, it was really important that we worked with him. He’ll give me extra time because he cares about the project too, so I don’t have to pay him for every last second if he thinks it’s something that should be done, and I don’t have money.

The end sound pays off.

Yeah, this one turned out really good.

There’s an element of psychedelic fantasy to this album. Where were you pulling from in terms of your lyrical inspiration?

I don’t know, that shit just kind of comes to me. Lots of it is metaphysical esoteric, then metaphoric. And a lot of it is normalcy for me, and normalcy for me and normalcy for someone else is two different fucking things.

The state of the world is so fucked up. Do you find any of that seeping into your songs?

Oh yeah. The first song we wrote, “Trapped in a Midcave,” was about being stuck in a garage with nowhere to go and nothing to do. That song is kind of about Covid and politics and riots and the times that we’re in and how fucking scary it actually was to everyone who has been on earth up until now and they never fucking shut it down. “Apoxy” is about putting glue into your mask and just enjoying the tragedy that’s happening to you trying to make the best of it even though epoxy is probably not a good thing and inhalants are probably bad for you [laughs].

Does living in the Pacific Northwest inspire your writing and music in any way?

To a degree yeah. I like to go outdoors here, I like to fish and go shooting and go four-wheeling. My [four-wheeler] blew up during the fires and I had another one but I gave it to my wife because she needed it more than me. I also had a lot of problems with my foot and the surgery, and I fixed that but it took three years to figure out what was really wrong with it. We just needed another x-ray and we could’ve figured it out, but it kept opening up and opening up and three years later I was like, ‘fuck dude this thing won’t heal.’ But I’m really thankful right now that I don’t have to be handicapped forever.

So you’re feeling better these days?

Oh yeah. I got the surgery done that I needed to get done. It’s been going good so far. I’m finally wearing shoes now and not a boot, so that’s some progress.

Can we expect a solo tour, or possibly working in some of this solo material into a High on Fire or Sleep tour?

This is its own thing, and I am going to start trying to book local shows. We’re practicing to get to the point where we can play. We will be trying to do that for sure. There’s a lot of logistics to this because there’s so many samples and weird things going on. The band’s gotta know how to play all that stuff first without certain players, but then we have to make it so that if we have certain players, they can jump in and it’ll be easy.

Would you play other instruments if you play live?

Yeah, I play bass and I sing. I think I’d hit the gong a few times. It will happen eventually.

As a guitarist who has accomplished so much, what keeps you excited to play?

Things like this band. Things that are a challenge to keep you on your toes.

You seem to have taken to social media in the last year or so. Do you enjoy connecting with fans like that or is it a necessary evil?

Oh yeah, I was against it all the way. It’s both. My wife is a lot younger than me so she was into social media way more than I was and she started recording fucked up shit I say to her in the morning. It turned into a thing, and then I got an Instagram and a Patreon to pay our rent, so we got a little business going on with that kind of stuff.

I’ve seen all the Matt Pike for President stickers all over the place. What do you think of that?

It’s good advertisement for me. I didn’t want to give that dude a cease and desist or anything like that, because it benefits me just like it benefits him probably. He made a little more money and I mentioned something to him, and he sent me a little [money], so that was kind of like saying ‘ok cool dude, you’re off the hook for a little while.’ No one likes being used by someone for their name, but at the same time it’s done me a lot of good and made a lot of people laugh, so I don’t want to be a total tyrant about it. But if that’s going on and someone’s making money off my name during fucking Covid when no musicians can even play at all, that’s a nice gesture to try and pay someone you’re making money off their name from. Least you can do.

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