High On Fire's sixth studio album, De Vermis Mysteriis (The Mysteries of the Worm), has an accompanying story written by newly sober singer/guitarist Matt Pike. The Oakland metal wise man tells the tale of Balteazeen—Jesus Christ's twin—who sacrifices himself to give Jesus life. Balteazeen time-travels, hunting his way through the cesspool of existence in search of answers and meaning. He can see the past through his ancestors' eyes and continuously wakes up in other people's bodies at the wrong time. In the psychedelic roadhouse-tinged video for "Fertile Green," Balteazeen guides his motorcycle through highway portals, wields a rifle, and gets a hatchet to the forehead from a four-armed oracle he's having sex with. On De Vermis Mysteriis, Pike, Jeff Matz (bass), and Des Kensel (drums) spatter and maul—Pike's guttural, rasp-throated vocal ode to Lemmy has never sounded better. His guitar is both a stylus chiseling phrases into granite and a needle injecting docile, frantic oracle-fucking commands. Pike spoke from Buffalo, New York. He was having problems with his amp and was looking for a new transformer.
Where are you all headed now?
Cleveland. I'm dealing with an emergency amp repair. I have to put an order in and coordinate where, who, and how this thing's going to get fixed. I have to set up another amp to play tonight and a bunch of other shit. Can I call you back in a bit? Sorry about this. I hate this shit. [Calls back in an hour.]
High On Fire just recorded a couple shows in New York for a live album. How were the shows? Were you nervous because it was being recorded?
Yeah, I was very nervous. The shows were different; there was more at stake because they were being recorded—everything seemed more charged, more was being risked. We played a little longer than normal, especially the second night. The first night, of course, I had some equipment fuck up, so I was freaking the fuck out. The second night, I was nervous because the first night didn't go exactly how we wanted it to, but the show went well—something came over us, and I thought we just killed. Overall, between the two nights, I think we got enough stuff recorded.
What was messing up with your equipment?
We had a stack go out like right before when we went on. Everything I had worked out in sound check was wiped out, gone. There wasn't enough power. I can't plan or prepare for a fuckup like that.
So what did you do?
I played through and dealt with it, but when you're recording, you don't want to waste money not having it exactly the way you want or need, you know? It was really stressful. I'd rather not relive that moment [laughs]. We had done a live recording before, kind of on the fly, for Relapse. But this one was our thing, and we were putting much more effort into it. I think we're really a live band. You could say our albums are great, but I think it's better to experience us live. We figured it was about time to put something live like this out. Not sure where we'll mix it yet, and I'm sure there will be a couple parts where I backed away from mic and parts we need to clean up. We're looking to put it out in early 2013.
Where did this Christ twin story come from? You're combining elements of Psycho from Robert Bloch and H. P. Lovecraft?
A lot of it came from things I've read and ideas that popped in my head. The subject of Christ is controversial. When you start playing with the constructs of religion, people can trip out. So when you're messing around with the notion of a science-fiction tale tacked onto it, people will either get offended or become interested. Just as a what if kind of thing. What if there were nine dimensions [laughs]? What if we're time-traveling now? A lot of it was just about internal spiritual stuff that I was going through at the time. I put words to the way I was feeling, and it just came out the way it did.
I wish I were time-traveling right now.
[Laughs] The Jesus twin dies at birth to give Jesus his life, and right then, that twin time-travels. He lives his life going forward until he finds a scroll from an ancient Chinese alchemist who'd made a serum out of black lotus—similar to Robert E. Howard's Conan stories. Then he starts traveling back in time. He sees the past through his ancestors' eyes, and his enemies can kill him if they kill the ancestor that he's seeing through at that moment. Basically, I wrote a small fucking book and put music to it.
Yup. And his twin [laughs].
How did the story affect the way that you wrote the songs?
Our albums kind of write themselves as we go. We'll have ideas and piece them together like a puzzle—I never know what it's going to be like at the end of it, exactly. I have an idea, but it works itself out. I don't go, "This is what we're doing," and then that exact thing gets done. It doesn't work like that. It's like a sculptor making a sculpture. It takes time, and you don't really know what it's going to look like until you're finished.
Had you recorded with Kurt Ballou before?
No. I'd wanted to work with him for a while. All his recordings sound fucking amazing. I think he did such a stellar job. He's great.
What sticks out about working with? He has become a superior producer.
He's definitely the heavy kid on the block, that's for sure. He's so creative in so many ways, and he knows what he's doing technically. I think he inspired a lot of our writing and ideas in producing and formatting the album. He's really smart, easy to work with, and easy to bounce things off of. We'd ask him, what do you think about this idea or that idea, and in his responses, he gets you to try things—he'll let you discover something for yourself. But he also has extremely directed knowledge. A hundred thousand little things like that make the album what it is.
What do you think of Salem, Massachusetts?
It was very dark [laughs]. I'd walk a lot and go to this graveyard that had people from the Mayflower buried in it; I'd write lyrics there. It was peaceful and quiet and dark. And creepy. It inspired me a little. I ate a lot of clam chowder. Like, every day [laughs]. I haven't had clam chowder since. There's not a whole lot to do there, so it's easy to focus on music.
In the video for "Fertile Green," who is the four-armed woman the Christ twin has sex with?
That's the Oracle. He has to turn a male baby into pot [laughs]. The Oracle is there to accept him and guide him to the next time portal. Phil Mucci directed and really outdid himself. I read him the lyrics and explained them to him, and he put it to film.
You all did some shows opening for Metallica. Some massive crowds. How was that?
Pretty awesome. I liked the shows that just had a single stage a little better. We weren't very equipped. I don't like playing wireless, and to play on the stage in the round, the way they had it set up, you had to be wireless. So we just played on one side of the stage to one side of their audience, which was fine with me. The main stages where everyone was in front of us—the soccer stadiums—that was fucking rad. Immense. A really good time.
What are the acoustics like when you play a stadium? Is there a delay? Could you hear yourself? Do you go about playing a show like that the way you go about playing any other show?
No, I was shitting my pants [laughs]. Budapest and Israel, those shows were ginormous. Ridiculously huge.
Playing a stadium to like half a million Israelis? Your testosterone levels must have exploded.
Yeah, a little. I was also insecure and scared—you can feel like pretty small up there. It's definitely an adrenaline rush.
When you think of all the weird shit that's happened to you guys while touring over the years, what comes to mind?
I'm sober now, so for a majority of the time I was wasted. Things like Andy Dick driving up to you and screaming at you from his car. The Waffle House in Florida where the waitress had a black eye and was pregnant. The guy with a tattooed earring—a feathered earring tattooed on his neck—talking about kerosene justice and lighting the Waffle House on fire. Or doing mescaline in a cold basement in Atlanta in the middle of an ice storm. On tour, the bizarro scene is a daily occurrence.
How are you feeling now? You were in the hospital back in June. What happened? How is everything?
I drank my liver into submission. They told me not to stop drinking until I finished that tour. So when we finished, I checked myself into rehab. Simple as that. I took the summer off because I needed to be well.
Congrats. It's got to be different playing and being sober.
Yeah. Even being social is weird to me now. I'll have some panic attack–type stuff. It is what it is.
How are you dealing with it?
Lots of meditation and lots of hiding—staying in the bus, not talking to people until I have to. I'm exercising. Trying to eat right. Which is hard to do on tour, but you do what you can. My playing is sharper—I've been playing better than I ever have, and my voice lasts longer.
What you do with your voice is so trashing and eruptive. Your scream is part of your sound. How do you sustain it?
Hot tea and tinctures. It used to be hot toddies. Whiskey always helped, but not too much of it. Gargling Listerine and salt water and getting a hat on your head when you're finished playing on a cold day. Because they're always having you run out of the building with a wet head, and you gotta be careful of shit like that.
Do you sing properly from your diaphragm and all that?
I sing properly from my diaphragm, I think. I have some kind of deranged vocal cords where my voice is distorted. Not everybody has that. It's kind of a curse and a blessing. I'll never be a true, super-state-of-the-art singer, but I have a good whiskey voice, and can hit pitch with it.
You are totally a super-state-of-the-art singer.
I have a special skill set.