Sunday, April 4, 2010

High On Fire: An interview with Des Kensel

Touring in support of their recently released fifth album, 'Snakes For The Divine' Oakland's High On Fire rolled through Chicago on Friday April 2, 2010. I spoke to Drummer Des Kensel before the band's set at a sold-out Lincoln Hall.

So first things first, I wore a High On Fire shirt today…

Des Kensel: Yeah, that’s the first shirt we ever made.

So you know about the unwritten “rule” that you shouldn’t wear a bands t-shirt when going to see the band.

(Laughing) Um, yeah, a little bit I guess (laughing).

OK, you always seem to hear about it or read about from the fans or writers or as internet chatter, but what does a/the band think of it?

It’s cool to see, it let’s us know people are buying our t-shirts. When you’re playing and half of the first few rows have your shirts, that’s cool too. If I went to see a show, would I wear that band’s shirt? Probably not (laughing)! But, yeah I guess it is an unwritten rule!

I was going through shirts on my way out and I said “fuck it, not only am I going to wear this, I’m going to ask him about it!” And like you commented before I asked the question, you recognized it as the first shirt you ever made, so in a way certain shirts might tell a story.

Yeah, that’s true. But yeah I wouldn’t wear a band’s shirt to go see them but it stokes me out to see people wearing our shirts at our show.

Cool, thanks for the insight. So let’s start with this, what did you take away, both professionally and personally from the ‘Death Is This Communion’ cycle?

Well, for that record that was the most support tours we’ve ever done before. So professionally we got kinda spoiled! I mean Gigantour we were out with Megadeth playing these huge venues and we had, like catered dinners and loaders and big time everything where everything was taken care of. That and we only had half-hour sets…so we kinda got used to that for a while.

But the next day we could be back on our own in a B-market somewhere and really missing doing the big shows with the catering! So yeah we learned a lot about what it’s like to be at a certain level and basically hoping we can reach that [level]…I mean do I expect High On Fire to headline Long Beach Arena, no. But if it happens, that’d be fucking awesome! But we’ll just try to get as close as possible.

How about personally?

More of a drinking habit, I guess…I don’t know? I mean we were going on at 6:00 in the afternoon like we did with both Megadeth and with Dethklok and we’re done by 6:30. So when you’re in a band and you’re done playing what else is there to do other than, start drinking (laughs).

I didn’t see either tour, unfortunately but when those tours were announced, especially the Dethklok one I think back to the time you supported Mushroomhead (2002). At that time was that something you also enjoyed back then? Just the different trip of being with other styles?

Let me start off by saying the guys in Mushroomhead , especially Jay who was the singer at the time, super cool to us. Shadows Fall who we’ve done some shows with since that tour, they’re fucking hilarious guys. I haven’t really seen Avenged Sevenfold since, well I saw them once actually they played with Shadows Fall in San Francisco and I went to say hello to everybody. But as far tours go? Matt and I still joke about that one, that’s the reference point of how bad it can get (laughing)!!

I’m all about bands trying to win over new fans and what not, but that run still sticks in my head as just way left field for you.

That was our first experience of kids in the front row and just staring at us or texting their friends on the way to the show, like ”don’t-come-now!!”

So several years on the Dethklok tour comes up, how was that for High On Fire?

That was pretty cool, we played a lot of the same venues we played on Gigantour, which really surprised me. I mean I knew Mastodon has blown up and has gotten really big and the popularity of Metalocalypse is there, but man. Tour-wise it was great for the band. We went on like I said, at 6:00 as we were the first of four bands and we played in front of a lot of kids.

Kids that weren’t just staring or texting or had their fingers in the ears, they were into it. However on a tour like that, yeah we’re getting a good crowd response, but at the end of the night how did we do with merch? On the Mushroomhead tour we’d be like “Wow, we sold $250 bucks worth of shirts, all right!” But yeah man, for High on Fire it was totally positive.

Of course I want to talk about the new record. What’s the initial spark that gets the band to start writing?

You know, it seems like every record that comes out, it gets harder to write. I think it’s because we have such high expectations and because of that we can’t always agree on stuff, but it gets done. But on ‘Snakes for the Divine’, I can definitely think back on it and it was a fucking headache. But I think we’re all like the happiest and most proud of this one.

I think our songwriting has evolved, our personal musicianship has evolved so at the end of the day when it’s finally done and we can agree on what part goes where and for how many times…it’s definitely something we’re proud of.

It took a while though, we had so many parts and so many riffs, we put all of them down on a disc once and it was close to two hours! We also, for the first time did some pre-production and we happened to finish a few songs during that time too. Another first was having a producer with actual input in some of the songwriting and that really helped out.

For this album we had some charts where we would write the parts and their timing and their key and BPM (beats per minute) and at one point it felt like our heads were about to explode so it was great to have an outside opinion.

Was that weird for you, for the band? I mean you’ve done X amount of records a certain way and now you’re…I’m not saying you’re giving, but sharing in this part of the creativity of High On Fire.

Definitely, but listen, when Jeff (Matz-Bass) came into the band, it was kinda weird because Matt and I had done all this writing together. Like “now we’re going to let someone else get involved?” On ‘Death Is This Communion’ he helped out a bit and I think after that album he felt more comfortable as did we.

So on ‘Snakes For The Divine’ it was like he just came up and said “hey, I got a lot of riffs.” With Greg (Fidelman) it was kind of like the same thing, like “we gotta have this fucking Hollywood Joe Schmoe guy come in and blah, blah, blah.

But what happened was Greg came down to our practice spot in Oakland to hang out with us and he brought a bunch of whiskey and cigarettes and hung out with us all day. So the reason we let him in this circle or whatever is because he was a cool dude to hang out with. In his job I think that’s very important, you have to understand or be near the same vibe of the band to work well with them. That’s why people refer to their producer as another band member, it’s important to click. He had ideas and we either totally agreed with them or we totally turned them down.

Now this was your first album recording with a double bass kit. Did you have to make a lot of adjustments to your playing and/or recording style/technique?

On the last record I used a double pedal, but actually the main reason I went with another kick drum was just before ‘Death is this Communion’ I had to have spine surgery and a lot of the “mock” double bass stuff, with the floor tom, that was getting really hard to do. I think the muscles just didn’t want to work that way anymore!

So then I started using the pedal and on some of the older stuff and Matt said liked it better. Live it was better for him as it sounded even where as if we had a rough mix where the floor tom was mixed lower than the kick, blah, blah, blah. So I had to adjust my playing after the surgery and then get back to the swing of things as far as the double bass stuff.

‘Snakes For The Divine’ is definitely a grower of an album, I think the changes between this and ‘Death is This Communion’ are a bit more subtle than those between ‘Blessed Black Wings’ and ‘Death…’. So I’m glad to see you guys are totally stoked with the outcome. If you had one song off ‘Snakes…’ you could play to a potential new fan, what song would it be?

Wow, what a question. Let’s see, well the song I probably listen to the most is “How Dark We Pray” I really just like that song, but that’s a tough question because I’d love to play em “Bastard Samurai” too, which is a song for us that’s a little off to left field…

That’s definitely a nice addition to the HOF repertoire!

You know, that one was one we totally wrote in pre production, it just kinda came out of nowhere. So going back to the whole pre production thing, it really was great for us. We were in Los Angeles so we were out of Oakland, totally out of our element. We were in a nice room with a PA and we miked everything and got to concentrate on tightening everything up and finishing up ideas instead of worrying about the stuff you worry about at home.

The cover story of one of the new issues of Decibel is a retrospective piece on the band that came out pretty cool. What was your reaction of Joe Preston saying…


That you and Matt “bickered like a married couple?”

(laughing…) Yeah, well he got to see a LOT of that, let me tell you! I remember one time he [Joe] actually had to leave the room! I remember the show like it was yesterday, we were in Prague and I think I got mad at Matt for fucking up a song or something. Put it this way, it was at one of those points on tour where everything boils over, right?

So we started throwing hospitality stuff, yelling and throwing loaves of bread at each other, I think I threw a bag of chips that exploded in his face or something…we’ve been in the band for, like 12 years now, that stuff’s always going to happen. Joe was just around for some good ones (laughing)!

I was going to bring that up 12 years…does it feel like 12 years?

YEAH (laughing…)! No, I mean it’s when I look back at old pictures of us it might seem like it, but in the present, it doesn’t feel like that long.

Do the pictures ever freak you out?

Sometimes, yeah.

The "bar-b-que" picture?

Yeah, totally!

From a fans point of view, it’s a pretty iconic photo of the band.

Sometimes when I look at it, it still looks so fresh, like it was just taken.

Do you remember that day?

I do, actually! That picture was taken in Albuquerque at a friend’s house, Brian Roy who was the bass player in my last band. He moved there from Connecticut and so we stayed at his place. I remember I had just finished checking an email and we’d recently signed with Man’s Ruin and the email said they wanted a band photo.

So Brian grabbed his camera and we took a few pictures and uploaded them on his computer and we just laughed at them, but then thought this’ll work. Brian still laughs about it because that picture of us was everywhere, but yeah the story behind that picture was it was the morning after our show in Albuquerque in a friend’s back yard.

This is a double question really, #1 this is the longest time between records, how did that work out for you guys and #2 I know towards the end of the ‘Death Is This Communion’ your son was born. How has it been dealing with the time factor of band and life?

Well this is another reason why ‘Snakes For the Divine’ took so long to write and I have to admit how cool and understanding the guys were, knowing I couldn’t go to the practice spot for six to eight hours every day with the kid. So the life part now that we’re on tour, I know I’ll be gone for several weeks but then know I’ll be at home for two months solid when it’s done. So it’s going to suck not being able to see him while I’m out, but then when I’m home, I’m home, you know? So I’m hoping it continues to balance out.

If you were to make a ‘State of the union address’ pertaining to High On Fire, everything’s going good? New label, new management, new stuff left and right. All’s well?

Add to that new booking agent, a new PR company so yeah, the wheels are rolling!

Before I left to come here I saw you were confirmed for some Metallica dates! Fuck man, congrats!

Yeah, dude that blew my mind! I mean really fucking blew my mind. If someone would’ve told me when I was eleven years old and just got ‘Master of Puppets’… how that album just blew my mind and totally opened up so many doors for me, be it Thrash or Hardcore Punk or whatever. But when I was down in my basement every single day trying to learn that record, so if someone would’ve told me one day I’d be touring with them, there’s no way I’d believe them!

I don’t care what anyone say’s about Metallica, they busted their asses from day one. The fact that they’re kicking it down to bands like Mastodon, Down, Machine Head, The Sword and then us…they sure as hell don’t need to worry about the package and if tickets will sell!!

Thanks to Carl and Brady for all their help!