When he picks up the phone to chat with CityBeat, Matt Pike is in his part-time home of New Orleans, where he's nursing a painful broken toe—it looks like a "huge sausage," he says—and a nagging case of strep throat.
It's a rare day off for the hard-touring frontman of both sludge/thrash-metal giants High on Fire, who are currently on the road supporting their excellent new album Luminiferous, and doom legends Sleep, who continue to play regular reunion shows more than two decades after their creative heyday.
"I really don't get a day off to myself, and if I do it's like everybody calls me or emails me immediately," Pike says. "I don't have a life. I just sacrifice myself and my happiness for my art. I'm cool with that. It's totally cool."
Swollen toe and sore throat aside, Pike appears to be in a good place right now, at least from the outside looking in. He has stopped drinking alcohol on the road, he says. In recent promotional photos, he looks downright fit. On Luminiferous, his guitar playing is typically transcendent, and his heavy-grit voice sounds better than ever, particularly on songs like "The Falconist," which finds Pike exploring more vocal melody than you'll find on most High on Fire recordings.
"I haven't been singing for that long. I didn't start singing until like 20 years after I started playing guitar," he says. "Guitar-wise, I've been doing it so long, it's like I have these tools and all I can do is have fresh outlooks on the tools I have. With singing, I'm still developing a voice and learning what I can do. I have room to grow, and I think (that) happened on this record, for sure."
A clearer, stronger singing voice means it's easier than ever to decipher Pike's lyrics on Luminiferous, which range in theme from love and heartbreak ("The Cave") to fantastical mystery ("Dark Side of the Compass") to his own theories on government run rampant, our alien overlords and, as he put it to Rolling Stone, the "lost history of mankind."
Pike is more than willing to talk about the ideas behind his songs, but he's also wary of people—writers, really—who are just looking to fit him for a tin-foil hat. He believes the world is an increasingly hopeless place where evil is overtaking good. He says the human race is "self-imminently doomed," and he feels sorry for the people who can't see what he sees.
"We're killing ourselves and killing the planet around us, and our fate is probably well-deserved," Pike says. "I'd like to think there's a happier side to things, but really there's not."
That dark outlook is reflected not only in the lyrics of Luminiferous, but also in its riffs. And with High on Fire, it's always about the riffs. Once again, the trio—which is rounded out by drummer Des Kensel and bassist Jeff Matz—conjures sonic thunder that out-booms just about any other band on Earth. "The Black Plot" is speed metal at its brawniest, an opening track that sets a torrid pace for the album. "The Sunless Years" is a relentless gut-punch packed with so many huge, rusty hooks it wouldn't sound out of place among Mastodon's recent pop-metal moves. "Slave the Hive" is essentially a high-powered thrash-punk anthem, while "The Lethal Chamber" twists and turns for almost nine minutes, with Pike, Kensel and Matz each burrowing deep into the center of High on Fire's sludgy-but-tuneful core.
It's "The Cave" that stands out most, however. Slower and more psychedelic than its surroundings, the song inspired in part by Pike's breakup with his fiancée offers a glimpse at a possible path out of the pitch-black for High on Fire.
"I had a negative approach but I found some light in it. I found some beauty in it," Pike says. "At least I got to put my one-third of the vision into an album that I feel really proud of. I think Des and Jeff just annihilated on (Luminiferous), and I think lyrically I got a lot across and I got a lot of what was in my heart out, whether anyone believes it or even knows what I'm talking about."
Alien overlords may not be everyone's cup of tea, but "The Cave," certainly, should be relatable to anyone who's a human being with a beating heart. "Darkness, the cave in which I hide," Pike sings. "Woman, woman hear me. Death has come to prey."
He speaks of his breakup like a man with nothing to hide.
"Me and my fiancée, who I loved more than anything in the world, broke up. We had to part ways due to either my love for my art or my love for her," he says. "I was kinda cosmically handed an ultimatum. It was one or the other."
Now, Pike works more than ever before, in part so he can retire early and "disappear and never talk to anybody," he says, and in part because being in Oakland, his other home and High on Fire's home base, is too painful right now.
"You ask me why I'm on the road all the time. Well, now I don't want to go home because I don't want to feel any love and I don't want to feel any pain like that anymore," he says. "I lost my family life altogether because of it. But there's days that I walk out on stage and it feels like victory."