“By 14 I was doing drugs and stealing booze”: the life and times of stoner icon Matt Pike

Matt Pike
(Image credit: Press)

Matt Pike helped codify stoner metal as a genre in the 90s with his band Sleep and their landmark releases Holy Mountain and Dopesmoker (aka Jerusalem), before launching the no-less-celebrated High On Fire

Along the way, there have been struggles with booze (he’s now sober) and even an amputated toe. With his first ever solo album, Pike Vs The Automaton, on the horizon, we asked Matt to guide us through the lessons that helped turn him into a modern metal icon.

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I WAS A REAL PROBLEM CHILD…

“By 14 I was doing drugs and stealing booze from my parents, throwing parties and getting into girls pants; all the things a shitty kid does. We’d take LSD and drink Jim Beam all over downtown Denver. I got into a little thieving ring run by some older guys; I was a skinny kid so I could stick my arm through tight spaces to open doors or whatever, so we’d go stealing cars and driving around.”

GETTING CAUGHT WAS THE BEST THING THAT COULD HAVE HAPPENED FOR ME

“I ended up going to juvenile hall for a while, then got sent to military school. My dad was just like, ‘You didn’t do enough time, dude.’ I wasn’t charged for grand theft auto, it was charges like criminal trespassing and whatever – just enough to get me a bunch of probation and time. It got me to California though, and once I moved in with my dad he was able to enforce rules that my mom never really could. I shaped up and tried a little harder, did better in school for the last year.”

MILITARY SCHOOL TAUGHT ME THE BENEFITS OF HAVING A ROUTINE

“Military school was very physical. When I first got there I couldn’t do a push-up, let alone a set. By the end of it I could do 200 easy, because that’s all I’d do all day when I’d get into trouble for not doing anything. But it was very structured, operating like a regular school during the day but with three set meals. Certain kids paid to be there for that kind of regimented education.”

A HEALTHY MUSIC SCENE MEANS BETTER BANDS CAN GROW

“We were spoiled in Berkeley, I got to see stuff like Neurosis playing with Melvins, with like 15 people attending and it was the loudest thing in the world. We’d see some amazing gigs at [legendary punk venue] Gilman Street, we had all these cool half-crossover bands that were part-punk and part-metal, with us going up in [Matt and future Sleep bandmate Al Cisneros’s original band] Asbestosdeath when we were little kids.”

SOMETIMES PERSONNEL CHANGES WORK OUT FOR THE BEST

“The first Sleep album [Volume 1] was basically all about transitioning from Asbestosdeath into Sleep. Nobody was getting along towards the end of Asbestosdeath – people were going to end up killing each other – so a decision had to be made. Then Justin [Marler, Astrodeath guitarist] became a monk not long after we recorded the album, up on Kodiak Island [in Alaska]. There’s a weird aura around Sleep for sure, this almost occult thing where it feels like its own religion.”

FINDING OUR OWN VOICE ALLOWED SLEEP TO REALLY PUSH BOUNDARIES

“A lot of Holy Mountain was working out what we wanted to bring to the table. There was obvious worship for Black Sabbath, but we were also listening to a whole lot of dub and smoking endless amounts of pot. That carried on right through to Jerusalem, which was an incredibly difficult album to make. 

Because of the reels and tapes we’d use, we could only record for maybe 22 minutes at a time. We ended up going up to the woods to write and record a lot of it, but ended up coming back home so we could rewrite a lot of a song, then go back again to try recording it again. There was a lot of fighting going on with that album, so much emotion and energy was going into it that inevitably we’d clash.”

I’VE DEFINITELY BEEN A TOKE OVER THE LINE MORE THAN ONCE

“Sleep were smoking so much pot it was ridiculous. We toured Europe with Cathedral and Penance, which was fun but also not great because we weren’t getting paid anything. We couldn’t get anything to smoke in England either, so by the time we got to Holland it was like, ‘Do we buy food or weed?’ ‘Weed, dude!’”


Juan Carlos Caceres

(Image credit: Juan Carlos Caceres)

MOST OF MY ALBUMS ARE SLOW-BURNERS

“People didn’t get Sleep at first. At that point, Florida’s death metal scene was really taking off, so the idea was to find bands like Cannibal Corpse, not Black Sabbath. Later High On Fire went on the Sounds Of The Underground tour with all these big metal bands of the time and people just didn’t know how to take us. It takes a while to sink in I think!”

YOU CAN’T ALWAYS JUST WING IT

“The experience of getting Jerusalem out was so difficult that I’m sure it made each of us better for future bands, as we knew what we were dealing with after that. We realised it was harder to do something like that without being prepared. The essential reason why people have deadlines is so they actually finish something rather than keep tweaking it. I’m really organised now it comes to recording – it looks like a fuckin’ formula on a math board at MIT at times!”

YOU CAN’T LET SETBACKS BEAT YOU

“I was digging ditches for pennies after Sleep broke up. It made me strong though, and I was kickboxing and doing other martial arts at the time. I was also drinking lots and playing pool, because the work was so gruelling. Any extra time I had I got a band together and started writing songs. I wasn’t gonna lie down and die; I got the guys from High On Fire together over about six months and got to writing.”

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT

“I started taking my vocal practice serious when I joined Kalas. My friends had started this band and I could just hear all these ideas straight away. The bassist [Brad Reynolds] was like my little brother, we were inseparable. I’d go to band practice every day after work.”

TRYING DIFFERENT THINGS KEEPS THINGS FRESH

“[Sleep’s comeback album] The Sciences was the best release ever. We put one Morse code message out that just gave details of when we were in the studio, then didn’t put anything else out for a while. Then we just surprise dropped it on 4/20, which also happened to be Record Store Day, so people went crazy for it. That’s the fun thing about Sleep – we always liked to fuck with people, try weird shit and see if people understood.”

 YOU’LL GET BY WITH HELP FROM YOUR FRIENDS

“I can’t say I haven’t been weak and gone to get a drink somewhere or whatever – I’m the habitual slipper – but it’s all about keeping it under control. There’s a lot more I can do when I can focus this energy somewhere. It’s good to have people around you who care about you and try to motivate you – those are your true friends. If a friend sees you going down the wrong path, they’re like, ‘Come play some basketball’, or ‘Come throw some axes in the forest’ or whatever.”

STAYING BUSY WILL KEEP YOU OUT OF TROUBLE

“I self-destruct if I’m not doing something – I think too hard and try to do too much at once, it’s an ADHD thing. I was on Ritalin for it as a kid, so it’s something I’ve dealt with for a long time but my wife was the one who really helped push me into doing other things during the pandemic so I wasn’t going crazy. I’ll complain to her that she’s nagging too much, but later I’m like, ‘I’m so glad you did that.’”

SOMETIMES YOU’VE GOT TO CUT AND RUN

“When I got my toe amputated [in 2018, due to a bone infection], it had got to a point where it was just like, ‘It’s causing me all this pain and misery, get rid of it.’ Don’t beat a dead horse – if something’s not working, move on to something else. Who knows, you might come back and find the horse is actually still alive. That’s how I looked at the Sleep break-up, to any issues with High On Fire, right up to now.”

You should NEVER BE AFRAID TO GET CREATIVE

“I love Pike Vs The Automaton. We didn’t write it like a normal album. I’d be tracking all this different stuff and had all the time in the world to cut all this stuff together. There’s a lot of percussion in there – I gave everybody mushrooms then got them to run around hitting things like gongs with axes and whips.”

Pike Vs The Automaton is out now via MNRK Heavy

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Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.