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by Ruben Dominguez

High on Fire pic #1 With the release of Blessed Black Wings, San Francisco-based High on Fire have served notice that they are one of the heaviest bands on earth. Their two previous releases, The Art of Self Defense and Surrounded by Thieves, were almost instant classics and showed fans and critics alike that they were capable of making music that sounded like a bulldozer crashing through an elementary school. It would be safe to say that they have created a masterpiece worthy of Tony Iommi's respect.
I spoke with drummer Des Kensel a few days before the band was scheduled to leave for their European tour. He's pretty unassuming for a guy that beats the cans for such a hard-charging unit -- no rock star pose, just a guy that likes to play really heavy music.

SCR: Thanks for taking time to do the interview. What's going on your end?
Des: Just getting ready to go to Europe. So we're having to buy all our guitars strings, drum heads, get our merch order in, and that kind of thing.

When do you guys leave?
We leave next Tuesday or Wednesday, so we have to take care of paying our taxes and all the other blah, blah, blah.

How long will you be in Europe?
Ah , I think like 30 shows in 35 days. We'll be over there for just about five weeks.

Where does the tour start?
We start in the U.K. and do about two weeks there. Birmingham, London, Glasgow, and a bunch of places that I've never even heard of. Then we go to the mainland and play Berlin, Hamburg, Vienna, and then a couple of shows in Denmark, and Paris.


High on Fire -- http://www.highonfire.net/

Relapse Records -- http://www.relapse.com/

This isn't the first time that you have toured Europe; you toured on the last record, right?
It's been a while since we've been over there. It's been a little over two years. We toured there when our last record came out. We went over there with Mastodon, and hopefully this time it will go good.

Who will you be touring with this time? Is there a specific bill, or will it be constantly changing?
No, we're headlining and doing a bunch of different shows. We'll do a few with a British band and a few with a Finnish band. I'm not even really sure, to be honest with you.

Let's talk about the new album. It seems all the reviews have been really favorable.
Yeah, we seem to be getting a lot of good press, and all the reviews seem to be good. Nothing but positive stuff since the record came out.

Up to this point, producer-wise, you guys have worked with Billy Anderson, but for Blessed Black Wings, you worked with Steve Albini. Was that a big departure from the way you guys were used to recording?
It was a hard decision to make, because Billy is a good friend of ours, and we did not want him to take it personally. We just felt like it was time for a change. The style of the music is starting to be a little different, you know? So we thought it would be good to have some different ears.

I definitely hear some more space on this recording. There are some wide open spaces, followed by crushing chords out of nowhere. Did Steve have any input in that area?
Yeah, the tempos have gotten faster, so we wanted to get crisper and brighter sounds but still keep it organic, and Steve Albini is kind of known for that.

So, how did working with Steve come about? Did he come to where you were, or did the band go to Chicago?
We went out there. He's got this studio, and he actually lives there. He's got like an apartment built into it; it's really nice. We toured for like two and half weeks to get the material really tight, and then we stayed at the studio for about a week.

Was it hard getting him to produce the band?
I actually called out to the studio to try and reserve some time. And it was pretty funny, because I got a call back from one of the guys at the studio that said, "uh, Steve really wants to work with you, but there is already a band booked for that time slot. But we are going to make calls and see if we can't get them to reschedule." I told them that they didn't have to do that, but Steve called back a few days later and said, "I don't want to give you a big head, but I really want to work with you." Which was cool, because I wasn't sure how he was going to be about it.

So he made some changes in his schedule to accommodate you guys?
Yeah, I heard they told the band that had the time booked to either pay up or they were gonna give the slot to another that they really wanted to work with.

Let's talk about the songwriting process for the band. Do you just jam on riffs and build a song from there, or does one person bring in finished ideas?
Usually Matt [Pike, guitarist/vocalist] and I will go into the studio, and he'll have a couple of guitar riffs. Then I'll give him some input on which way it should go as far as the drumming or envisioning the sound or whatever, and we'll just jam on it. Then we'll make tapes and take them home and then come back the next practice and talk about any ideas. But you know, a lot of it starts as just riffs with some drums, you know? It almost just writes itself after that. In a way, it just evolves on its own.

Was this record fun to play on as a drummer?
Yeah; drumming-wise, I still wanted to make it as heavy and crushing as possible. I wanted to make the beats make the riffs sound as heavy as possible, but I still wanted to get more intricate and faster in some parts. It's definitely a lot of fun to play, you know? It's hard, because at the end of the set I'm exhausted, because I'm trying to give it a good energetic feel live over an hour-long set.

A lot of heavy bands use a kind of over-the-top, decapitation, gorefest album art that seems really generic in metal. But when I heard the new record, the cover fit perfectly with what I was hearing. Who does the art for you guys?
For the re-release of the first record, The Art of Self Defense, we used this guy from New York, Arik Roper, who works mostly in watercolors. We used a different guy for Surrounded by Thieves, on Relapse. We talked to a few different artists for this new one, and we felt that Roper came up with the best stuff. We basically just told him the name of the record and then told him the name of a few of the songs and gave him demo copy of some of the stuff. I think he gets the same feel for the music that we do.

Over the past five years, it seems that you guys have been on the road nonstop. Is there one tour that stands out in your mind, that you look back on, that you would do again in a heartbeat?
Definitely. We did a week on the West Coast with Mötörhead, and that is something that we had wanted to do for a long time. Obviously, I mean, we love that band. We knew that we would go over good with that crowd, and that it would be some of the bigger crowds that we were going to play to. I'd love to play with them again. And then we also did this one where we had been on the road for about ten weeks. We were headlining for like three and half weeks and doing really good, and then we jumped on a tour supporting Super Joint Ritual, so we went from playing small clubs and doing really good to playing huge clubs and having the audience look at us like we had fucking boogers hanging out of our noses. And then after that it got even worse, because we ended up opening up for Mushroomhead.

How did that go?
Yeah -- cool guys, but definitely not the kind of music that we're into. Their crowd was not into us. That was definitely weird. But it ended up on a good note, because by then we had been out for about nine and a half weeks, and we ended up in Texas and then flew straight to Japan. We did some small headlining shows that were kind of crap, but we did something we had never done before, and that was play in Japan. It was definitely a memorable tour, because when we all came back, our cars had been towed away and our girlfriends broke up with us because we had been gone for so long.

With all the buzz about the band and the new record right now, if a major label comes calling and wants to dump mega money in your lap, are you guys ready to make the jump?
I don't really know, it all depends. I definitely don't want to change anything we're doing, you know? Obviously, we're not writing songs for radio or the mass public. I mean, these days there are major labels picking up bands that are playing shows like Ozzfest and whatever. But if the deal is right for us, yeah, maybe. We're not going to just sign on the line because it's a bunch of money.

Will you guys be swinging back through Houston soon?
Well, we played Houston not that long ago, and it was really good show, so I hope so. END


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