Interview with Des Kensel [HIGH ON FIRE] 12/08/2018
Written by Marc C. Pietrek 2018
DISCLAIMER: I DO NOT OWN, NOR DO I CLAIM TO OWN, ANY OF THE PHOTOGRAPHS AND/OR VIDEOS USED FOR THE PURPOSE OF THIS INTERVIEW/ ARTICLE.
[Marc C. Pietrek filed the following report for VITRIOL, INC / A DARK UNITED FRONT (www.vitriolinc.com) on 12/19/2018 11:07 PM EST] Some of metal fans most beloved songs begin with an unforgettable drum intro. Lee Kerlake on OZZY OSBOURNE’s “Over the Mountain”, Nicko McBrain on IRON MAIDEN’s “Where Eagles Dare” and Cozy Powell on RAINBOW’s “Stargazer” are all great examples of this. In the early 2000s, my brother from another mother, Jason Davis, advised me of a band that I should probably check out. I went on YouTube and found a track that had such a cool title, I had to at least watch it to confirm that he was right. Right indeed he was. The drum intro was a steady, pummeling tribal beat that decisively pounded away. The type of powerful beat that makes you think that all Hell is going to be unleashed as soon as the guitar, bass and vocals kick in. To my pleasant surprise, where those other classic songs I mentioned had the beat changed drastically as soon as the rest of the instruments and vocals began, this particular bombastic beat really didn’t waiver too far away from the intro. It worked in perfect unison with the guitar, bass and vocals. I was thoroughly impressed with the way the drummer held it together though the whole duration of the song. The song: “Hung, Drawn and Quartered”, by Oakland, California’s doom/stoner metal legends, HIGH ON FIRE, from the album, ‘Surrounded By Thieves’ [2002 RELAPSE RECORDS]. The drummer: Des Kensel. From that moment on, I have been an avid fan. When the topic of metal drummers comes up while talking with fellow rivet-heads, his name is brought up by me and right fucking quick!
This past May I reached out to him via social media and requested an interview with him. A few months later, he responded and confirmed that he would do the interview. On the original night that he called in from his home in New Orleans, Louisiana, there were some technical difficulties that forced us to scratch the interview for that night. He was extremely cool in letting me reschedule it for the upcoming weekend. On 12/08/2018, we banged out the interview (hyperlink to full recorded telephone interview directly below).
Des is not one of the most mentioned names in discussions regarding great metal drummers like he should be. However, his tsunami-causing combination of power, speed and precision has been a trademark and the backbone of one of the genres most respected bands. His steadfast dedication to his craft has resulted numerous surgeries, including ones on his back, neck and shoulder. Where as many musicians would probably consider changing careers after going through that, he strives to get better, even after over four decades behind the kit.
Growing up in the suburbs of Middletown, Connecticut, Des got swept up in the resurgence of heavy metal and hard rock (he mentions Tommy Lee [MOTLEY CRUE] and [WHITESNAKE, ex-OZZY OSBOURNE, ex-PAT TRAVERS BAND, ex- BLACK OAK ARKANSAS] Tommy Aldridge as early influences) at the same time as he was playing drums in the school band. Remembering back to his drummer roots, he stated, “I started playing drums in school bands in grade school in fifth grade…I picked the drums ’cause at the time they didn’t offer guitar in the school band to be honest [chuckles]. But what got me into music was a friend of mine who lived down the street, his dad in the late seventies/early eighties had all the rock and metal albums. I just loved them! I’d go down to his house with cassettes and and rip copies of them, you know like OZZY, AC/DC. JUDAS PRIEST was probably my favorite band as a kid. KISS was my first record I ever bought. Really just listening to music over the years and being in the school band. I have a birthday in the Summer and I’d get one drum for my birthday and then I’d get another drum for Christmas. I think I had a full kit by seventh grade. Still into music, playing along with all of my favorite records. And then jammin’ with friends in high school and just going to punk rock and hardcore shows as a kid and just realizing, ‘Hey! You don”t have to be in [laughs] L.A or Hollywood to be in a band”’.
As the decade of decadence trudged on, his musical tastes began to go in a heavier, more aggressive direction with him now listening to thrash metal and hardcore. Per Des, “(Dave) Lombardo [SUICIDAL TENDENCIES, ex- SLAYER, ex- TESTAMENT] still! I’ll listen to old SLAYER records just to get inspired for ideas when we’re writing stuff. Mackie [CRO-MAGS, ex- BAD BRAINS] was killer, especially for a single-kick guy and them playing faster stuff. So on-point! Earl from the BAD BRAINS. Some of that shit’s killer and that’s going on almost forty years ago!”.
After cutting his teeth recording and touring with Northeast hardcore act, MINDWAR (which was preceded by a brief stint with vocalist Jamey Jasta [HATEBREED, KINGDOM OF SORROW, ICE-PICK] in JASTA 14) in the mid nineties, Des packed up his stuff and headed out to the Bay Area in 1998. He settled in Oakland, California and began jamming with (then) former SLEEP guitarist, Matt Pike. A titanium-strength bond was formed between them, culminating in the formation of HIGH ON FIRE. Now after twenty years, eight studio albums, two live albums and one live EP, the bands’ popularity keeps growing at a rapid, feverish pace. A great example of HIGH ON FIRE’s ever-growing popularity is when they headlined the inaugural HEAVY MOUNTAIN FEST in Asheveville, North Carolina, earlier this year. The bill had them headlining even over death metal royalty, OBITUARY. He commented, “You know, that was weird for us. We were like, ‘Why are we playing after OBITUARY? ‘, you know [laughs]? That was kind of weird. But you know, I guess that’s how the promoters wanted it. So, it went well. I know OBITUARY was in the middle of a tour. We just did a couple of fly-ins. But the show went great! It was great to play with them [OBITUARY]!”.
While a lot a bands tend to commemorate a milestone such as surviving twenty years as an active unit by releasing some sort of complication album and/or doing a national tour playing select cuts from their discography, HIGH ON FIRE increased its’ workload and delivered one of 2018s most anticipated metal albums, ‘Electric Messiah’ [2018 eONE RECORDS]. The album actually came together more different than any of the previous releases from the band. When asked about the making of the album, he responded, “Well, we’ve all kind left Oakland and moved to different parts of the country. I’m now living in New Orleans. Matt moved to Portland, Oregon. [Bassist] Jeff (Martz) was the last one to stay in Oakland until recently. So, writing this record, the first time that we were kind of traveling to three different cities, to three different jam pads or rehearsal studios. So that kind of held up the writing process a bit, and then plus Matt doing a lot more with SLEEP. So, actually me and Jeff got together a lot more and put together a lot of parts and kind of organized a lot of the songs. So, that was a little different. You know in the past, especially after [original bassist] George (Rice) left, it left me and Matt doing ‘Blessed Black Wings’ [2005 RELAPSE RECORDS] and a lot of ‘Death Is This Communion’ [2007 RELAPSE RECORDS], But definitely on this record, Jeff, he’s playing a lot more guitar. He was coming up with different riffs. Me and him just hashed through a lot of it and put a lot of it together. That was cool working with him more one on one this time. But even though when we were traveling to these different places and there’s a lot time in between the writing sessions, it’s kind of been good because when we do get together, it’s like some time to fuck around instead of, ‘Get to work!'”.
2019 looks to be yet another busy year for HIGH ON FIRE as well. For starters, the band will be making up shows (which had them billed with east-coast thrashers, MUNICIPAL WASTE) originally scheduled for earlier this Fall but had been to be cancelled due to Matt’s partial toe amputation via surgery. He elaborated on it by saying, “We’re doing three weeks of mostly east-coast, mid-west this January and then we’re going to do another three weeks west of the Rockies in March. We’ll be out there. We’re not not going to forget our west-coast brothers”.
Along with the upcoming U.S tours slated for the new year, rivet-heads can be expecting new music from the band. Per Des, “A couple of weeks ago, I finished my drum tracks for like an EP that we’re going to do to be released on RECORD STORE DAY. I believe it’s just going to be vinyl, like a twelve-inch vinyl. So, there’s going to be three songs on that. And then we actually did the THIN LIZZY song for that comp. We’re doing ‘Vagabonds Of the Western World’…Jeff wanted to do ‘Bad Reputation’, which is a great one. I remember thinking, listening to that, ‘You know, this one will be great!’. There’s just a lot of drum breaks in the middle, which I wouldn’t have a problem doing. But it would it would be a bit more time consuming to really rehearse, especially because for the drum tracks. Only Jeff came out here and we had like four days to work on a bunch of covers and then do a new original song for the EP because Matt was still recovering from his toe thing. So it was like, not to take the easy way out but I was like, ‘I think with ‘Vagabonds Of the Western World’, we can really put good, cool HIGH ON FIRE twist to that one’. It’s kind of got that drum part in the intro. I can add some cool toms and double-bass over it, and I’m totally confident that within the next four days, I could bang that one out”.
As a former musician myself (albeit, a failed musician ha ha) I had to inquire about certain technical aspects of his drumming. In regards to his implementation of tribal drumming Into his overall style, he responded with, “I don’t specifically try to add tom or tribal parts, but to me, it can either make a part sound heavier or just thicker or dynamic-wise, it will help in songwriting. I always feel like you’re doing a cool part with toms. It just sounds super heavy. And then to bring it up a notch, rather than going into the ride, cymbal or hi-hat, I’m like, ‘Fuck it!’ I’m going to start doing the crash’. It’s something I think adds a good dynamic to the song. Like, ‘Hey! If I’m going to do just a standard double-bass drum part on this, just rather riding on the hi-hat, I’m going to do it on the floor tom instead’.
In regards to his recording in the studio, I mentioned to him that to me, it sounds like he is hitting the “sweet spot” of the drum both consistently and definitively. I followed that up by asking him (with myself already knowing how extremely meticulous HIGH ON FIRE is in the recording studio) how much of it is technique VS drum microphoning? He replied by stating, “You know, I think both are very important. On tour, I’ve had other drummers like Gene Hoglan [TESTAMENT, DEATHKLOK, ex- DEATH, ex- DARK ANGEL, ex- FEAR FACTORY, etc] or Brann [MASTODON] coming up and be just like, “Jesus, man! Your stick control! Look at that dot in the middle of that drum! It’s so precise [laughs]!’. It’s like, ‘Cool! Thanks, man!’. Of course, hitting right dead center in the middle of the drum, you’re going to get a good specific sound. Plus, how much force do you put into it. Is it all in just that snap of the wrist or does it come from your arm or your back? So anyway, all that is going to affect the sound of the drum, but also the room you’re in, the type of mics the engineer wants to use. Also, how are the room mics setup? How much dampening is in the room? Do you have a big, open wooden room? Is it deadened by the partitions and sound-proofing Styrofoam stuff in the walls? All of that definitely goes into the sound. So, you can get two drummers in the same room on the same kit and it could sound different because of their different style of playing. But also, the same drummer in two different studios could sound a little bit different but could sound a little different. Going into the studio, there’s so many little aspects that will go into getting that sound”.
In closing, when asked about being in HGH ON FIRE for the past twenty years, he offered up this observation: “I think I was twenty-four maybe when I first met Matt and we started jammin’. I mean, you know, I didn’t think that twenty, twenty-one years later we’d still be doing it and gaining popularity. But it’s great because you want to be a professional musician and there’s got to be some longevity there, you know? So, it’s great that we’re still here. Still here doing it. But as far as looking back on our history, it’s hard to believe that we’re flying into different cities to write a record where fifteen, twenty years ago, we barely had enough money to get in a van and make it down to southern California or something and even have anything to eat along the way. So, twenty years later, we’re still here. I guess we’re doing something right”.
Damn straight they are doing something right! I want to personally thank Des again for doing the interview, being extremely cool and gracious and accommodating with his time!
I hope you had as much fun listening to the interview and reading this article as I did working on them both. Be sure to visit HIGH ON FIRE’s official web-site, their official BANDCAMP page and official FACEBOOK band page, Check out the video links listed below. Cheers, ya rivet-heads!!