News, Culture and NPR for Central & Northern Michigan
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
91.7FM Alpena and WCML-TV Channel 6 Alpena are off the air. Click here to learn more.

Can Matt Pike face the music?

In the metal bands Sleep and High on Fire, Matt Pike has always looked to esoteric sources. Over the last decade, however, he's found inspiration in the conspiracy theories of David Icke.
Photo Illustration by Estefania Mitre/NPR; Getty Images
In the metal bands Sleep and High on Fire, Matt Pike has always looked to esoteric sources. Over the last decade, however, he's found inspiration in the conspiracy theories of David Icke.

Matt Pike has always seemed to relish his underdog status.

In the fall of 2008, Pike's heavy metal trio of nearly a decade, High on Fire, was slotted as the warm-up band for Opeth, a Swedish prog-metal institution on a three-month sweep through the United States and Europe for which they had recruited a select cast of au courant American acts. One night near the middle of the tour, inside Raleigh, N.C.'s Lincoln Theatre, fans — a sea made up mostly of men clad in black Opeth shirts — greeted High on Fire with impatience, their arms folded in frustration.

Pike, then in his mid-30s, met that less-than-welcoming party with trademark aplomb. Poised at the lip of the broad stage, he moved in perfect time with the band's mighty rhythm section, as relentless as some gargantuan engine's pistons. Shirtless, sweat dripping from his broad tattooed frame, Pike tossed back his light brown hair, which cascaded far below his shoulders, and spit at the stage, as if cursing the very gravity it evidenced. Then Pike lifted off again, unleashing another splenetic electric solo above the band's churn.

The Opeth devotees were swept up in Pike's energy, grinning up at his wild-eyed guitar theatrics. High on Fire felt dangerous, mean and urgent. If Opeth's set was a river winding down an elegant rut, High on Fire was that same river beyond flood stage, cresting its banks and roaring.

That was the first time I'd ever seen Pike play, and to me, that night, he seemed heavy metal incarnate. A year earlier, High on Fire's Death Is This Communion had suggested a trompe-l'oeil rendering of ancient warfare, with Pike hemming and hawing about epic battles, quarreling gods and Mesopotamian religion above the band's sculpted racket. In the 14 years since, without changing much of his style, sound or the substance of his songs, he has risen from that undercard to become one of modern metal's bona fide icons. A rebel to love, Pike has supplied a rare link between metal's sprawling underground and what's left of its mainstream, between its past and present.

But the same sense of underdog insurgency that long made Pike so compelling, as an opening act and eventually as one of metal's marquee performers, has recently gotten much more complicated — and the conflict could come to define Pike's career as much as his music. In early February of this year, I called Pike to continue a conversation we'd started a few weeks earlier about his debut solo album. He answered with something like a gruff whimper. "They canceled me on Bandcamp, dude," Pike said from his home in Portland, Ore., not bothering with a greeting. "Can you believe it?"

Actually, I could: Two days earlier, the British music website The Quietus had published an extensive interview with Pike. After 30 years as one of metal's most riveting guitarists and adored characters, first in stoner-metal trio Sleep and then in High on Fire, Pike, now 49, had finished the unruly and uneven Pike vs the Automaton. In that interview, he spoke about making the album during lockdown and the future of his more famous enterprises. And as he's done off and on since at least 2010, Pike then leaned into a longtime inspiration: the conspiracy theories of writer, firebrand and laughingstock David Icke.

For more than a quarter-century, Icke's outlandish ideas about people descended from aliens and Israeli criminal networks have frequently been associated with global antisemitism — that is, very broadly, a prejudice against or hateful perception of Jewish people. In 2020, his views on COVID-19 even prompted the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate to issue a 25-page report on Icke's beliefs, saying he was using the pandemic "as an introduction to his antisemitic superconspiracy." But if The Quietus pressed Pike about his associations with Icke, they didn't print that part. Instead, Pike talked about how global warming is not much of a threat, our worries about it likely due to a capitalist scheme, and that whatever is labeled "misinformation" is likely true.

A flicker of online outrage followed, with Pike fans such as cultural critic David Grossman voicing disappointment that Pike had again extolled Icke without addressing his antisemitic underpinnings. (The writer Alice Walker prompted similar controversy when she called Icke's books "a curious person's dream come true" in The New York Times.) The ire seemed brief and bound to fade, though, as it had for years whenever Pike referenced Icke. A jeering headline here, a concerned Reddit post there: This was just a heavy metal wildman saying wild things, right?

Bandcamp Daily — the editorial arm of the music-selling website Bandcamp — finally disagreed. After spotting the Quietus interview, editors there decided to scrap a playful piece where Pike picked some of his favorite obscure artists and albums from the site. They'd done that less than five times in the site's history, Editorial Director J. Edward Keyes told me. "We are unabashedly an advocacy publication, which requires us to ask with every piece, 'Is this something we want to advocate for?'" Keyes wrote in an email.

Bandcamp Daily had previously gushed about Pike, even excitedly citing his love of Icke-adjacent conspiracy theories. NPR andRolling Stone had done much the same. I'd glibly turned his Icke adulation into a punchline during a glowing review of High on Fire's 2015 album, Luminiferous. Pike had long seemed heavy metal's avuncular goofball, a fan of fast cars and potent weed, sporting wild tattoos like Bill the Butcher slicing a pizza. He personified metal's long-running theater of the absurd, the very quality that seemed to animate his onstage bravado that first time I saw him. "He can be a bit of a cartoon character," as Billy Anderson, his longtime record producer, put it. The conspiracy theories simply seemed part of his bit.

But on the phone that afternoon, Pike was mystified by what had changed to prompt this "cancellation," since Icke wasn't new territory for him. He demanded to know how something that had recently served as his selling point — creativity fueled by conspiracy theories — started to seem like it could cost him some piece of his career. Who had reset the line others felt he had now crossed?

"I'm not, like, preaching his gospel. I was using the David Icke 'mythage' to create a song that had a science-fiction, fantasy motive," Pike said a few days later, his momentary whimper now approaching a growl. "I don't understand how that gets to be not published. If you can't say an author's name in an interview, you're telling me I don't have freedom of speech. That's the problem."

For a flash, I felt the sinking feeling I expect adult children experience when they learn of a parent's investment in QAnon. Pike often complained to me about "cancel culture," but he was unwilling to admit that Icke, antisemitism and his association with either might be a problem for Jewish people or anyone else. This controversy was about protecting his freedom, he insisted, not shifting social mores meant to protect the vulnerable. "This is why war exists," he stammered, "because they separate us by propaganda narratives."

Matt Pike's interest in David Icke and his brash statements at large met mostly shrugs from the metal community for more than a decade. But in recent years, there has been so much conversation — within metal and, of course, far beyond it — about how a fan might and even should respond when an artist they adore does something they find odious or dangerous. I was now not only that fan, increasingly confounded by what Pike had to say, but also a journalist who'd been interviewing him for four years. I could ask Pike what he believed and why he believed it. That was my first responsibility. And only then, I could decide if I were going to remain a fan — or, perhaps, back away.

From digging ditches to headlining stages

A decade after I initially encountered Pike onstage, I finally met him — and, for a spell, shadowed and interviewed him on tour for several days — at the start of September 2018.

I wanted to write about Pike, then 46, because his sudden star status felt important and inspiring, a tattooed testament to perseverance. He was, after all, then amid the biggest year of his career. High on Fire was on the verge of releasing Electric Messiah, the album that would soon net Pike and his bandmates their first Grammy. They were headlining an all-day beer-and-metal festival in North Carolina's mountains. It was the midpoint in a brief spate of shows where Pike toggled between his roles as High on Fire's guttural singer and Sleep's lumbering guitarist, occasionally during the same day. Sleep had just released its first new album in nearly three decades to rave reviews, including my own.

Pike was in high demand, and, in sporadic interviews during the last four years, I hoped to learn how he was managing his slow ascendance from a lifetime as an underdog. "I'm good at it," he boasted during our first chat that day in 2018 before the late-night set, reclining in a wooden chair at the food co-op next door, his arms folded across a black tank top and legs splayed wide. "My DNA's definitely meant for traveling and other harsh conditions, with no sleep." He chuckled at his pun.

High on Fire won a Grammy for best metal performance for <em>Electric Messiah</em> in 2019.
Amanda Edwards / Getty Images
Getty Images
High on Fire won a Grammy for best metal performance for Electric Messiah in 2019.

In the early 1990s, Sleep had emerged as one of the strangest and most intriguing acts in the stoner-metal orbit, a loose confederation of bands that loved strong weed and slow riffs. Sleep's 1992 album, Sleep's Holy Mountain, was a fantasyland of Black Sabbath worship populated by "choirs of the sun" and "magic channelers," dragons and drugs. The band went all-in for the follow-up, spending the better part of three years writing and recording a single hour-long song intended as a full album, about a Biblical odyssey where weed was the holiest sacrament. Dubbed — what else — Dopesmoker, it was a minimalist symphony for those wanting to "drop out of life with bong in hand," as singer Al Cisneros intoned in the intoxicating opening line.

But in 1996, personnel shifts at Sleep's big new label, London, cost the band their advocate there; Dopesmoker, which just might have been the band's breakthrough album, was indefinitely shelved by executives agnostic about its commercial prospects. The news broke a band already bent by fraught recording sessions. Making Dopesmoker had been a slog, tensions escalating between Pike and Cisneros, fellow high school outcasts who'd once found safe harbor with each other. The pound of weed Sleep had written into the recording budget didn't help the anxiety. Pike suffered panic attacks and a stomach flu; back home, his mother was dying.

When Sleep finally broke up, it briefly felt like liberation. An obsessive guitarist since childhood, Pike soon felt lost. "Once it was official, I was like, 'OK, what am I going to do now? I've been working on making a career out of this, and now it's all gone,'" Pike recalled earlier this year. "I was working my ass off in construction. I just wanted to get stoned and have a couple beers and play. I started writing."

High on Fire slowly emerged from his quickened, impatient new riffs just as the '90s ended. Anchored for 20 years by explosive drummer Des Kensel, the band matured from a hard-partying caravan "driving through Oklahoma, snorting cocaine and drinking a bottle of Jack midday," as Pike reminisced, to a hard-working machine. With images of epic battles and fantastical sea creatures animated by high-velocity metal, High on Fire played, wrote and lived in an extreme fashion. They would spend at least half the year on the road and somehow release a new record every two years or so, steadily creeping up Billboard charts and festival posters.

Meanwhile, Sleep's Dopesmoker, available during High on Fire's post-millennial ascent only in bootlegged form, had rightly become regarded as a stoner-metal masterpiece. (The label Southern Lord would eventually release it in 2012; a new reissue is due on Jack White's Third Man Records this spring.) Interest in Sleep was so strong the erstwhile trio reformed for two shows at a prestigious British festival in 2009. "Me and Al were like, 'Dude, this is amazing that this many people remember us,'" Pike said, guffawing. "We got paid more than we've ever been paid in our life — I wish I could make that much money in any of my other bands. We kept it going."

In the course of a decade, Pike had gone from digging ditches and collecting garbage in California to a member of two of metal's most respected acts. The next decade culminated in a Grammy for High on Fire. Sleep's first new album in almost 30 years, The Sciences, arrived without advance notice on April 20, 2018 — a stoner's holiday. It sold better than any album on Third Man Records that didn't actually involve White himself, label co-owner Ben Blackwell told me several months after the release.

For Pike, this string of career highlights — the Grammy, the sales, the surprise return of Sleep as a proper band making new music — was vindication unlike anything he'd ever experienced after an era of constant toil. Sitting in the co-op, talking about the differences between his two bands, the hesher with the face tattoo smiled and said he'd been "blessed."

Against the grain

Pike's career woes through the '90s weren't his first battle with long odds. His entire childhood seemed a Dickensian fable, a prideful standoff against one form of penury or another.

Soon after his family decamped from Detroit for Fort Collins, Colo., in the mid-'70s, his Harvard-educated father split in favor of bachelorhood. Pike and his mother scraped by in assorted trailers and duplexes of Denver's exurbs. School was hell. Diagnosed with severe ADHD, he disrupted every class — including music, where he ended up "teaching the teacher what he's talking about."

He drew anarchy symbols on notebooks and boards during lessons and snapped back until one instructor tried to strangle him, he said, not long after his father left. He was eventually reassigned to a remedial program that came with one-on-one instruction. "I wouldn't learn because I wasn't interested," Pike remembered, scowling. "It all seemed like foolishness."

This is how my mind works. I don't care if it's true or not necessarily; I want to hear it out.

Eventually, the skinny punk who was often teased for his long hair started finding trouble and fighting back. He spent six months in juvenile detention after cops caught him stealing a car's Kenwood stereo. (He was never apprehended for the actual cars he stole, he offered with a mischievous grin.) His next stop was a military school in Salina, Kan., a memory that still shook him three decades later. "That was a thing, man," Pike said, sighing. The experience galvanized his intense anti-authority streak.

Long before he was a teenager, Pike found complementary escape routes for life's hard-edged exigencies — drugs, fantasy and loud rock. He had a crush on his childhood babysitter, "this punk rock chick" with a mohawk, so he didn't hesitate when she offered him his first bong hit when he was 10. Pike befriended a large classmate who protected him from bullies and became his first consistent weed supply. It was a dependable way into another realm.

And so was, surprisingly, the Old Testament. His mother was a devout Christian, and Pike was fascinated by the Bible. When he was 9, his grandfather gifted him a copy of The Lord of the Rings, affirming his intrigue with worlds he could not see. Star Trek, Leonard Nimoy's In Search of..., Dungeons & Dragons and dinosaurs all became related escape hatches, as did, eventually, heavy metal's fantastical imagery.

"Any sort of outlandish thought process that gives you that feeling — 'Ooh, is that really true or not? Why is it a mystery? Why don't we know about it?' — always fascinated me," he said. "This is how my mind works. I don't care if it's true or not necessarily; I want to hear it out."

The conspiracy theories that proliferated after Sept. 11, 2001, found, in Pike, a receptive audience. He already loved alternative histories. He loved the separate realities offered by psychedelics and the mental flexibility provided by weed. Despite reams of evidence against the attacks being some intricate "inside job," Pike didn't buy any of the official explanations. "Nobody will hold people accountable because those accountable for it are all dead. That's the way our government works," he told me of federal oversight. "That's the way these organizations have always done s***." Conspiracies, he suggested, seemed like the more consistent explanation.

Matt Pike (center) and the band Sleep perform <em>Dopesmoker</em> at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in 2010.
Lars Gotrich / NPR
Matt Pike (center) and the band Sleep perform Dopesmoker at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in 2010.

"The moment that happened, I thought, 'We're doing this to ourselves to start a war' — because it's happened before," he began, launching into a near-breathless monologue that zigged and zagged from the Lusitania to the Gulf of Tonkin, from false flags to black magic, fromThe Simpsons predicting the Trump presidency toa Laurence Fishburne movie predicting COVID-19. This litany of inconsistent conspiracies, he insisted, were connected, and he'd researched them all. He consistently got details, like dates, wrong. "That was the beginning of what's happening now. This ain't over yet, either. The stage is still set for some major Shakespearean avalanche of human death."

I asked him on two occasions for a recitation of the conspiracies he at least entertains; both times, the roster grew so long he got distracted before he could reach the end. We probably "got scammed" with the 1969 moon landing. Beneath Antarctica rests "antediluvian Atlantis," an entire continent cloaked by ice, and that's why Barack Obama visited. (Obama visited the Arctic, in Alaska, in 2015; then-Secretary of State John Kerryvisited Antarctica in 2016.) We all potentially died as a result of a 2012 accident at the Large Hadron Collider and have since been existing on a separate timeline.

COVID-19 variants, he continued, have been systematically released by the rich. Half of the Earth was destroyed in an interstellar collision long ago, and the other parts now drift through the Kuiper belt. (But flat-earth theories? "Complete bulls***," he tells me.) Bigfoot, Dogman, wildfires caused by a solar system closing in around us — you get the picture.

Pike agreed that all of these theories are possibly adult extensions of his childhood escapism — ways of thinking that circumvent conventional narratives and authority. But he also enjoys the endless chase, he said, tunneling in and seeing how warped the world can look from an unconventional vantage. He loves to read history and mythology, but he admitted that Joe Rogan interviews and YouTube videos remain steady sources of information about potential conspiracies.

Whenever Pike spoke to me about these theories — even the ones he didn't necessarily believe — his eyes would brighten, his face as excitable as a kitten batting around a ball of unwinding string. He seemed to be playing with ideas he knew sounded ridiculous, trying them on for size like outfits. But when he would go stoic, furrowing his brow to explain how the masses had been misled, I began to wonder if these costumes had started to swallow the singer who once wore them so well.

"You can look this esoteric stuff up. I have a lot more information, like an encyclopedia, just following that trail," he said at one point, pausing for a bong hit and a deep cough, as he often did. "If people even knew what I believed, they'd lock me up, dude."

Pike and Icke

Despite talking and singing about the dangerous cabals that David Icke suggests run the world for a dozen years, Pike doesn't actually remember how he first encountered the British writer.

For that, Chad "Chief" Hartgrave — High on Fire's longtime sound engineer and Sleep's guitar technician — told me he readily takes responsibility. Near the end of the last decade, Hartgrave read The David Icke Guide to the Global Conspiracy (And How to End It), a book that still means so much to him he can now recite its beginning.

"It was an eye-opening experience — reptilian royal bloodlines, other dimensions. I thought everything he said was the absolute truth," said Hartgrave, who quit his jobs with Sleep and High on Fire in 2019, but now plays bass in Pike's solo project. "I told Matt about the book, and then he had his own copy a few days later. He said, 'Dude, this is all true.' It felt like the key."

Icke has been a famous figure in conspiracy-minded circles (and, elsewhere, an infamous one) for decades. After calling himself the "son of God" while wearing a turquoise tracksuit on a British talk show in 1991, Icke, a former sports broadcaster, began penning voluminous tomes in which he explained what everyone had missed about most everything as the result of elaborate conspiratorial schemes. A secret species of reptilians ran the world, his supposed research revealed. The Illuminati were behind many of history's recent tragedies. Aliens long ago hijacked the planet. Well-worn if wild ideas about 5G, COVID-19, Sept. 11: Icke's list of suspects and subjects have evolved alongside culture and technology to shape a veritable conspiracy-theory word cloud.

Even if that all sounds like bunk, the implications of such ideas have long posed real danger. Icke's writings are often seen as metaphors for or direct implications of Jewish participation in nefarious global schemes. Icke has been dubbed "where the New Age meets the Third Reich," one of his titles "an unhinged anti-Semitic conspiracy tract written by one of Britain's most notorious anti-Semites."

A publisher once dropped him for repeatedly citing a notorious fabrication that vilified Jews and inspired Hitler; a subsequent self-published book implicated Israel in Sept. 11 and drug rings anyway. Across a barrage of movies, podcasts and lectures, Icke has become a sparkplug for surging antisemitism. In early 2019, Australia even revoked his visa after a national outcry, with one activist telling The Guardian that "allowing Icke into our country would have ... sent the message that it is open season on the Jewish community."

Soon after Pike devoured that introductory book, he read more. Icke's imagery began to pepper his lyrics and interviews, his longtime distrust of authority given fresh mythological grandeur. It was a new narrative device, he insisted, little different than what he'd gleaned from the Bhagavad Gita or the cuneiform texts he studied, even Ray Bradbury. "It's the perfect sci-fi fantasy for metal," he raved. "It's so out there — of course I like it."

Kensel, High on Fire's drummer in those days, knew Pike was excited about Icke's ideas but paid them little mind. "Some of it makes sense for good stories," Kensel confirmed soon before he quit. "But I don't really look into it all that much; I'm busier with other stuff." Billy Anderson, who has produced a half-dozen records for Pike during the last 30 years, would often rib Pike for his lyrics about lizard people, trotting out facts he'd learned as an anthropology student to dismiss Icke's research. "That stuff is funny to me — 'You believe that?'" Anderson said, laughing. "I try to reason with him using science, but he doesn't really have rebuttals for science."

Pike said he never detected antisemitism in Icke's writing, in spite of his longtime devotion. (Despite their skepticism of Icke's ideas and their belief that Pike can get carried away with such things, Anderson and Kensel both agreed they did not think Pike was an antisemite.) Icke's reptilian lineages simply represented an alternate history of the world he found fascinating. Maybe he missed something, Pike finally admitted, before defending himself.

"I am not an antisemite. I'm actually not OK if there's not Jewish people in my life," he snapped, his voice momentarily clenched like a fist. As supporting evidence, he mentioned that his longtime roommate was Jewish. "I'm not a racist. I'm not anything. I'm Matt Pike. I'm trying to make the world a better place through my music."

Despite his disavowals, Pike referred repeatedly in our conversations to "Zionist bankers" and "Jewish bankers," echoing the language of a centuries-old conspiracy theory that inspired the Holocaust and is used now to attack the Federal Reserve. That idea, included in the working definitions of antisemitism for the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, threads through many of Icke's books. Pike had read those parts, too, but he said demonizing "Zionist bankers" was distinct from antisemitism. He could not readily explain how they were different.

I'm not a racist. I'm not anything. I'm Matt Pike. I'm trying to make the world a better place through my music.

Report after recent report has documented the resurgence of antisemitic rhetoric and violence in the United States; just two weeks before Pike's controversial interview appeared in The Quietus, four people were held hostage in a Texas synagogue. When I asked if he understood that American Jews felt threatened and not interested in Icke's ideas about lizards, especially right now, he balked and redirected. "Trump is all about the Jews — he moved our headquarters to Jerusalem," Pike protested, referring to the former president's 2017 decision to formally recognize the city as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv. "He works for the Jewish bankers. It's really weird that a bunch of Trumpers would hate on a bunch of Jews."

For years, Pike and I had shared a rapport, even when we disagreed. He was affable, gregarious, funny, vulnerable. But those moments — when I asked Pike to articulate some onerous belief and he hemmed and hawed or changed the subject — frustrated us both. I was offering him the chance to exculpate himself, but he didn't seem to know what he actually believed, as if he were just offering up provocations without considering the way they interacted with one another or, frankly, reality.

A social sea change?

It is tempting and convenient to lampoon heavy metal for its familiar stereotypes: angry, loud white men screaming about Satan or barbarism or sorcery above a racket that seems like an androgenic flex. But metal is loaded with politics, too, including a pernicious right wing, with its obdurate ties to fascism and bigotry, and, more recently, a rejuvenated left wing, too, full of radical feminism and anti-fascism and veganism.

For a long time, Pike appeared content in his own strange corner, tucked away from politics and too concerned with fantastical scenarios and visions to be either right, left or center. He'd rather sing about ziggurats and weed and shred his guitar, after all, than engage with the actual world around him.

But when the lines between left, right and middle shifted in American politics, Pike (who said he did not vote for Donald Trump) suddenly found himself aligned with one of the right's familiar ideological talking points: the assertion that you're no longer allowed to say something controversial or even be influenced by taboo. Pike felt perplexed by that perceived sea change, alienated by its results.

"It's a dangerous game some people are playing now," he told me. "Once you shut down everybody, they're going to come after you and shut you down and your ideology."

High on Fire performs at the Adult Swim Festival in 2018.
Vivien Killilea / Getty Images for Adult Swim
Getty Images for Adult Swim
High on Fire performs at the Adult Swim Festival in 2018.

The social shift Pike invokes paralleled a particularly rough patch in his life; so much of the momentum he felt in 2018, back when he was "blessed," had dissipated. Kensel quit High on Fire in 2019, in part because Pike was paying more attention to Sleep's high paydays on tour. A surgeon amputated one of Pike's toes after it became badly infected in a European club's shower stall, the first in a string of foot woes that hindered his ability to walk. Next, the pandemic eliminated tours and revenues. Pike, who married fellow musician and artist Alyssa Maucere following a Las Vegas metal festival in 2019, mentioned relationship problems in recent conversations, though he hoped Maucere might join him on tour to play some of his new songs live.

What's more, he felt powerless amid Black Lives Matter protests near his home in Portland, which he said had been co-opted by white kids merely looking for attention. (He would sometimes drive downtown and squeal his El Camino's tires in solidarity — "for whatever movement," he scoffed.) COVID-19 also curbed his ability, as it did for many musicians, to record with long-time bandmates, so he turned, restlessly, to writing his solo debut, Automaton. "This is my way of exorcizing my demons," he told me. "If I can't go play, I'll self-destruct. If I didn't have that project, I would have killed myself."

All this seems to have hardened Pike, curdling his conspiratorial beliefs until they bear at least a whiff of menace. In 2018, he often joked about loving politically incorrect comedy; in 2022, he instead launched into tirades about free speech being policed by "these people," denouncing them for "making the world suck." He seemed unwilling to acknowledge that these recent problems are rather ordinary compared to what others have faced in recent years — that is, the freedom to talk about antisemetic conspiracy theories without consequence might seem of little import to people worried instead about, say, survival. He would get worked up whenever I said as much, then apologize.

It's a dangerous game some people are playing now. Once you shut down everybody, they're going to come after you and shut you down and your ideology.

"It's not just me, but the world's being attacked," he countered. "Not to sound like Team America over here, but, yeah, it's nice to have some freedom. You don't have the right to stop us from being creative. That's a lizard-people thing to do, for god's sake."

Pike is free, of course, to read whatever he wants and use anything he finds interesting as musical or lyrical fodder and to say as much during interviews. But over the course of a month, I often told Pike that it seemed fair for people to be leery of those views and sources, especially right now; listeners were also free to mock or criticize him for his statements, to look squarely at what the singer is actually singing and saying and decide if it makes "the world a better place," as he often said he aspires to do. He bristled at that notion without noting the irony, as if freedom of speech stopped with him.

"I'm just not into censorship. It's not my deal," he told me near the end of our last interview. "I like being free to do what I want. That's why I'm an anarchist. I don't want to be f***** with by other people in Gestapo outfits, and I don't want to be told what to say."

I finally asked Pike if he worried that tension and his continued association with Icke would hinder a successful career that had been so hard-won. He initially said no — he was more concerned about people who thought he was mean, or "waving a flag of hate." Then he changed his mind and huffed, "No one wants their career sabotaged by saying the words 'David Icke.'"

I couldn't help but flash back to the version of Pike I'd first met in 2018, when he seemed jocular as he worked through his matrix of conspiracy theories for me for the first time. His eyes seemed alive with wonder as he talked about the possibility of clans of lizards or the society buried beneath Antarctica. "I'm a true crazy person," he impishly squealed that day, delighting in a self-proclaimed status that, only four years later, seemed to be catching up with him.

Out of the fog

As Pike's conspiratorial obsessions have become more entrenched and even outlandish, questions about how fans should deal with such ideas and the art they've inspired have likewise become more vexing and daunting. David Grossman — the writer who expressed surprise and disappointment with Pike's continued association with Icke back in February — always loved Pike's particular brand of craziness.

More than a decade ago, while in college, Grossman fell for Sleep's spacey epics while trying to woo a crush who loved metal; years later, living in Brooklyn, he discovered High on Fire's primeval churn. When he realized the link between the two, he was floored. He could hear the shared strangeness. "It felt aggressive, able to grab you and take you on a journey," Grossman told me. "You feel like you're being transported. Pike's a genius and a bit of a crazy person."

It seems hard to have read Icke and not to have any knowledge of antisemitism. Maybe someone can tune it out and just accept the fantasy, but it's there, whether you ignore it or not.

He had never really considered whether or not Pike might be antisemitic or, really, what he believed at all. Like so many of Pike's fans, he just liked how wild and burly the music felt. Grossman was thrilled, then, to learn that Pike had finished his solo debut. High on Fire was the last band he saw before COVID-19 ended most tours — "one of the highlights of my life," he exclaimed. But when he clicked on The Quietus interview from February to read about the record, he spotted Icke's name and felt a sudden sense of betrayal.

Grossman had known about Icke since he was a teenager. He had attended synagogue in Los Angeles, and his congregation included the celebrated Jewish historian Deborah Lipstadt (who was nominated by President Biden last summer to lead an effort to monitor and combat antisemitism). When Grossman was young, British writer David Irving sued Lipstadt for calling him a "Holocaust denier." The young Grossman felt compelled to learn more about that network, and that's where he had encountered Icke.

"Icke always stood out as the nutty one because of the whole reptilian thing," Grossman said. "So it was a complete shock to see Pike credit him. It seems hard to have read Icke and not to have any knowledge of antisemitism. Maybe someone can tune it out and just accept the fantasy, but it's there, whether you ignore it or not."

I asked Grossman if Pike should be permanently relegated to the ranks of metal's extreme right wing for the books he reads or cites. Of course not, Grossman said — there's no redemption in that, and understanding what Pike actually believed felt impossibly ambiguous, anyway. Instead, Grossman suggested, he'd be excited to hear Pike take another approach with Icke's theories, one that was entirely unambiguous.

"If he wants to engage with David Icke, I would love to see Matt Pike make art about how David Icke is an insane antisemite and Holocaust denier," Grossman said. "That would go so hard."

We both howled at this prospect. The idea was ludicrous, of course; Pike had refused to disavow Icke. We had both fallen for Pike's music because of where it took us, as listeners. Now, we were falling away from it because of the discomfort that came from following Pike to his ideological source. Sure, we could fantasize that talking to Pike might help us find a way to resolve feelings of conflict, or that the artist might — on his own — turn that toxic ideology on its head, as Grossman suggested in jest.

But those fantasies have, at their core, a delusion — like pursuing a quest into dense fog and believing that, somehow, you'll find your way home, or placing your trust in a conspiracy theory simply because it feels more interesting than all available evidence to the contrary.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit