Is Oakland's High on Fire the best metal band in the Bay Area? The monolithically heavy power trio founded in 1998 by guitarist Matt Pike (already a local legend thanks to his work with dope-centric Sabbath worshippers Sleep) and ferocious drummer Des Kensel has built a legitimate claim during its 16 years of existence. Providing Pike a more aggressive platform to explore his obsession with Tony Iommi's tritone sound, the band — rounded out by longtime bassist Jeff Matz — has refined a seismic mix of raw intensity and a locomotive fury (recalling classic Motörhead) over the course of six pulverizing albums.
Two years have passed since the band released the ferocious concept effort De Vermis Mysteriis, which explored a twisted sci-fi premise (the twin brother of Jesus dies at the moment of birth and becomes a Quantum Leap-style time traveler), but a steady schedule of international touring and limited-edition 7-inch singles have kept the trio busy. SF Weekly recently spoke with drummer Kensel about the current free tour (sponsored by Converse) and work on the band's highly anticipated follow-up.
SF Weekly: You've already done the first few dates of this Converse Rubber Tracks Live Tour. How have the shows been going so far?
Des Kensel: Great! All three shows were sold out, which is good, because it's free admission. If they weren't, you'd be wondering what was going on [laughs]. Yeah, they've been killer. We did Boston, Toronto, and New York. On our own headlining tours, those cities are good for us…
So were you playing venues that were pretty comparable to what you would usually play, or were these shows smaller?
Well, the place in Boston [The Sinclair] we'd never played before. We were supposed to a year and a half ago, but it wasn't open yet. We were originally booked there, then it got moved because they weren't ready for their grand opening. So that was our first time there. It was pretty comparable to what we usually play; I think it was around 600-650 capacity. In Boston we've usually done right around that.
Toronto was a new venue, Adelaide Hall. It was good. The place we played in Brooklyn was actually where we did some of the recording for our live album [Spitting Fire Live Vol. 1 & 2], the Music Hall of Williamsburg. So we were familiar with that venue.
Are you finding the crowd to be different from the usual High on Fire gig? I imagine it's still mostly High on Fire fans stoked to see you for free…
There was that, but it seems a little different from our normal headlining tour. Which wasn't a bad thing; maybe it's just the link with Converse and the show being free made it a slightly different crowd. That was just my take from when I got to look up from behind the drums. Every night the crowd seemed into it; they were familiar with us. Regardless, it went well.
Between this tour and Scion AV putting on the tour with 0x000AKvelertak last winter, and the big Rock Fest show you played in May, the band has been doing a lot of sponsored gigs. Does that mostly help defray the cost of being out in the road and aid in the promotion?
Well, with these sponsored tours, they've got deep pockets [laughs] so it makes it worth our while. It is something new where these bigger companies are trying to tap into our genre. It's all for marketing. There's obviously a fine line where they can make it cool or it can turn into something that kind of fucks it all up.
What Scion has had going on, they're working with some really good bands that are good friends of ours, so something like that makes it worth our while to fly to Pomona for the one show. It helps keep High on Fire afloat and pay studio rent and keep the band going. I don't think it's that bad. They haven't ruined it yet [laughs]!
The cool thing I know, at least with us and I'm sure with other bands like Municipal Waste and Down, they're not getting in the way of any kind of creativity. With Scion, when they're putting the songs out, it's just like “Hey man, we like what you do. Let's get together and do something cool.”
Where are you in terms of progress on the new album?
There are lots of parts and lots of ideas. We have two songs that are pretty much complete. One of them was the single for Scion, so if we need to we could re-record that. But hopefully, we'd like to keep it fresh and have something completely new for the full length. The plan is to have a new record come out in early 2015, but High on Fire is High on Fire; we're always behind schedule [laughs]. But it always comes together. We've got lots of parts. It's just a matter of piecing it all together to where everyone can agree on it and be psyched on it.
So I guess it's too early to say whether it would be another conceptual album like De Vermis Mysteriis?
That was just because of the lyrical content, which always comes last. After writing some lyrics for the songs, Matt thought he'd tie it all together in one big story. It kind of worked out good. With us, we get the structure of the song and we get it arranged, and then to finish the song we need to get an idea what the vocal sounds like. Maybe we'll come up with one or two verses and a chorus and we can finish the song off from there once we get a feel or vibe for where it's going. Not every time, but a lot of the time, it's like that.
That being said, we're not really sure what kind of theme it will have lyrically. Not yet. I do know Matt went to Peru like six months ago and that was very inspiring for him. He might be doing some lyrics based on his trip and what he saw at Machu Picchu. Whether or not that's going to be a theme for the whole record or just one song, we're not really sure yet. But I know it was inspiring for him.