Stoner metal monsters High On Fire recently released their sixth studio album, a blunt-force concept record called De Vermis Mysteriis or Mysteries of the Worm (out now from eOne Music, with kick-ass cover art by tattoo artist Tim Lehi…see below), which takes its title from a fictional grimoire created by author Robert Bloch (Psycho) and which H.P. Lovecraft incorporated into the Cthulhu mythos as one of the books that “repeat the most hellish secrets learnt by early man.”
Throw in lyrics about time travel, an ancient Chinese alchemist, a serum made from a black lotus and “a Jesus twin who can see the past through his ancestors’ eyes,” and we needed to talk to HoF frontman Matt Pike (pictured centre, with bassist Jeff Matz on the left and drummer Des Kensel on the right) about the California trio’s new musical aberration before our buzz wore off.
Reception to De Vermis Mysteriis has been almost unanimously positive – it debuted at a fourteen-year career-high #61 on the Billboard Top 200 and #5 on the Billboard Hard Music chart – and some reviews have even referred to it as a “game changer.” We thought there was no better way to spend 4/20 (if you don’t get the reference, look it up) than to ask Pike a few burning questions. And, um, the conversation takes a few weird turns, so you may wanna smoke one if ya got one…
Are you at home now, enjoying the calm before heading out to tour the new record?
MATT PIKE: Yeah, I’m trying to get myself healthy. I’m going to the chiropractor, going to acupuncture, and trying to go to the gym as much as I can because I know I’m going to go out on the road and there will be debauchery. I’ll kill myself and come home a zombie again. I’m trying to fatten myself up! [Laughs]
Alright, I need to know as a lot of your fans have been complaining that you aren’t in your usual state of perpetual shirtlessness in your latest photo shoot: are you wearing a shirt right now?
MP: Nope! [Laughs]
And everything is right in the world again. Why such an aversion to shirts anyway?
MP: It’s just more comfortable for me with the way the guitar strap slides across me. On tour, you have a lack of laundry. I have to keep my clean shirt clean for after [the show] when I dry off.
I like how you refer to “shirt” in the singular, like as if there’s maybe just the one. How did you become interested in Robert Bloch’s Mysteries of the Worm and why’d you write a concept album around it?
MP: I’m really into H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, and somebody brought me this encyclopedia of Cthulhu mythos, which I was reading to come up with themes [for the album's lyrics]. Usually I relate themes to my own personal life and make it metaphorically about sci-fi or horror, but with this one I made a whole story out of it – a Lovecraftian slash religious roots story. I thought it was a great name for a song at least and then actually after a while my band really liked it, once I explained to them that De Vermis Mysteriis means “Mysteries of the Worm” or “Book of the Worm.” And later Des comes up to me and says, “You know that means ‘Book of the Worm?’” and I’m like, ‘Dude, I told you that, like, a month ago.’ [Laughs] I’m kind of a weird dark dude so if I say something in passing, a lot of people don’t pay attention.
What’s the root of your interest in the occult, the origins of man and religion?
MP: I’ve always self instructed and been fascinated about mankind always needing to have a god and roots. I believe a lot of our roots came from aliens. There’s more of an awareness of it nowadays because we have The Discovery Channel but I also believe that a lot of what mankind thinks, or if he can think of a story, it exists somewhere. With the way the universe is, how vast and deep it is, every thought is a different parallel dimension. Every thing you can think of is thought of and exists somewhere, even if it’s just a fable. That fable played out in your mind whether or not it was in 3-D or 4-D, up to 9-D. Dimensions, that is. I find the whole experience of life fascinating and I try to delve as deep as I can. I suppose it’s kind of spiritual or something but it’s not a religious belief. … I find a bit of a yin and yang in myself, Devil and God. There’s so much more to understanding ourselves and inside of ourselves – it’s a deep journey. If I can do that artistically, create that way, put it into parables and set it to music, I guess that’s my art.
Do you have any other concept albums knocking around in your head that you’d eventually like to record? Or is there a particular horror story that you think would make a great one that no one has tackled yet?
MP: Yeah, but that’d be on the DL. If I go ahead and disclose what I’m thinking about then I wouldn’t have another album before someone beat me to the punch.
A lot of critics and fans are calling the new album your best work yet. What was the mission statement going into it?
MP: Personally, I don’t think any of the three of us knew whether we could raise the bar or not. Snakes for the Divine  was pretty fuckin’ good and so was Death is This Communion  and those are hard ones to top. We kind of procrastinate until we’re under pressure, and when we’re under pressure that seems to be the time when we do our best work. When it’s like, ‘Dude, we have two weeks to get this done, for real.’ [Laughs] That’s when everybody starts brainstorming and we start listening to things we’ve recorded on our little 16-track digital recorder – weird ideas we had. In actuality, the recording only took ten days or something like that … It’s a weird process. If it was a person making a sculpture, you start with a lump of clay. Once you have the lump of clay in a certain shape, which would be the skeleton of our music, you start adding the details. Say you’re making a man’s face: you start adding the eyes and figuring out how big his nose is. That’s the only way I can describe how our music comes together.
If you yourself could travel through time and embody someone else, who would it be?
MP: That’s an interesting one. I wonder what it would be like to be [Italian violinist Niccolo] Paganini and be cast out, having people accusing you of witchcraft just because you were so good on your instrument; just a God-given talent. I wonder what it would be like to be Henry the VIII and have that ruthlessness about you. My personality is so different from people in the past and I often wonder, damn, how does someone have that much balls and that much stomach? There’s so many people that I’d just be curious about trying to walk in their shoes.
Why do you think heavy music and horror elements go hand-in-hand?
MP: Because I think with the overall themes of horror or science-fiction, it’s an anomaly that the story exists, so a lot of people who play heavy music are all, “Dude, that needs a soundtrack.” With a heavy theme comes a heavy soundtrack.
You’re known to be a connoisseur of the “Devil’s Lettuce,” as they say. What do you remember about the last time you experienced “the fear?”
MP: What do you mean, “the fear?”
You know, like drug-fuelled fear. Intense paranoia.
MP: Well, you know, that happens to me a lot. I have a lot of anxieties. I kind of live with that, I guess. [Laughs] There’s fear, there’s despair, and then there’s anger. And you know what the weird thing about it is? Anger gets more stuff done than despair or fear do. If you’re afraid of something, you’re not going to get anything done because you’re afraid of it. If you’re despairing and you’re all woe-is-me and having self-pity, you’re not going to get anything done because you have all this self-pity and you’re all woe-is-me. But if you have anger, you’re gonna wanna get something done because you’re gonna wanna punish something. I suppose I turn a lot of my anxiety and my fear into anger, which comes through the music and gets something done that’s artistic.
Seriously, is there anything that scares you?
MP: I definitely get stage fright. … I guess the worst one was playing with Metallica in front of 30,000 people in Israel. Dude, I was just shitting my pants. At the same time, I turned around and was like, “Fuck these people. Fuck that, I’m not going to be afraid of this.” I turned it into anger and we played a great show.
Do you have any unusual pre-show rituals to get psyched up for gigs or do you have any superstitions related to performing?
MP: Yeah, I can’t stand walking with someone that I like and split a bowl. It freaks me out. There’s all sorts of weird shit that’s kinda OCD-ish or something but I think everyone has those kinds of superstitions or fears. Even though you know nothing’s gonna happen, it still bugs you.