Sober and Shredding

The men of High on Fire tone down the partying to keep the beat steady

November 25, 2012

Veteran stoner-metal band High on Fire released its sixth album this past spring, the blistering “De Vermis Mysteriis,” an ambitious collection about Jesus’ time-traveling twin brother. As the Oakland, Calif., band enjoyed glowing reviews and sold-out shows, however, it faced one of the hardest disappointments of its 15-year career.

Right before the band embarked on its U.S. tour to support the album, singer/guitar player Matt Pike entered rehab for alcohol abuse. All dates were canceled.

Pike is actually the second member of High on Fire to get sober. In early 2011, bass player Jeff Matz went through rehab.

“He’s a sharper player now,” drummer Des Kensel says of Matz. “He’s more with it, not hung over and sleeping all day.”

Kensel hopes Pike ultimately gains a similarly renewed spirit for High on Fire’s rescheduled U.S. dates this winter. On a recent short tour of Australia, says the drummer, “I could tell he was better to be around, with less anxiety and more focused on the task at hand.”

The members of High on Fire were never particularly hard boozers in their early days (as their name and genre suggest, there are mellower ways to catch a buzz), but all that time on the road can make any musician turn to the bottle.

“Sometimes, before a show, we would gather around and do a group shot or something like that,” Kensel says. “It was like we were all feeling like [expletive] and needed a drink.”

To record the new disc, the trio booked studio time in Massachusetts, about as far from Oakland as they could get.

“There are just too many distractions here [in Oakland],” Kensel says. “Kids, wives, girlfriends, bars. We had to do it somewhere else or we thought this record would never come out.”

Kensel himself isn’t sober, “but I’m not ragin’,” he says. However, playing High on Fire’s very precise brand of metal night after night and year after year has taken a different toll on the drummer. “I’ve already had two surgeries,” he says. In addition to a spine fusion, he had orthoscopic surgery on his shoulder to repair damage caused by pounding the skins so relentlessly.

“The music is definitely demanding,” Kensel says. “It’ll physically wear you out. So you have to balance fun with taking care of your body. That’s your tool.

 Rock & Roll Hotel, 1353 H St. NE; Fri., 8 p.m., $15; 202-388-7625.
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Rudi Greenberg · November 21, 2012