When it was announced online — via Morse Code, no less — last year, it almost seemed like someone was trolling: Revered stoner metal trio Sleep had awakened from a lengthy slumber and would release their first set of new material since creating their mythical third LP Dopesmoker. Later on, we learned Jack White’s Third Man Records would release it on, of all days, 4/20. You gotta be putting me on.
But here we are, at the top of the California group’s North American leg of the world tour in support of The Sciences, a heavy, sprawling meditation on buds and Black Sabbath that many critics are hailing as Sleep’s masterpiece. It truly is the band’s best album yet, as both bassist/vocalist Al Cisneros and guitarist Matt Pike have grown immensely as musicians in the two decades between albums with their own respective outfits Om and High on Fire. And when you add the thunderous dexterity of Neurosis drummer Jason Roeder, who replaced original member Chris Hakius behind the kit in 2010, you can hear elements of all three men’s activities beyond Sleep seep into the fiber of songs like “Sonic Titan,” “Marijuanaut’s Theme” and the indelibly titled “Giza Butler,” just one of many Sabbath-related Easter eggs to be enjoyed both within the music and across the cover art of The Sciences. Meanwhile, on May 23, Sleep released a new song “Leagues Beneath” as part of the Adult Swim Singles series, a sprawling, majestic 16-minute-long instrumental that picks up where “The Botanist”—the sprawling, epic finale of The Sciences—leaves off.
Billboard spoke with all three members of Sleep about their surprising return to the public eye, the public’s changing attitudes toward marijuana legalization and how Tony Iommi’s face ended up on a piece of toast.
It seems as though a lot of people were turned onto Sleep after you went on hiatus. What was your following like in the early days?
Matt Pike: No one was into Sleep back then (laughs). We didn’t catch on until we were long gone. Back then when we started all we played were these punk and metal shows. We were playing with groups like Cannibal Corpse, but we were this band doing slow Sabbath riffs. And it was hard to make any traction doing that. Some people kind of got what we were doing, but it was maybe 10 percent of the people in the club. The rest of them stood there like, “What the fuck?” They thought we looked like we hung out in a creek (laughs).
Jason Roeder: And back then, at least until Nirvana came along, it was still a regional thing. Like if you were from New York, you might have been super into Anthrax. If you were from the Pacific Northwest, you might’ve gotten into Soundgarden before they exploded. If you’re from the Bay Area, you’ve actually seen Green Day before they got….I remember seeing Green Day with only ten other people in the room.
Matt: And for Al and I, it was Jason’s band Neurosis and The Melvins. Occasionally, those guys would book at these pay-to-play places like The Stone or The Omni or something, y’know?
Jason: Before the Internet, everything was still way more localized. The dissemination of music and its consumption is just completely night and day compared to what it used to be.
Sleep has enjoyed a strong online presence, however, in terms of word-of-mouth regarding your existence and history. When did you first discover there were communities of metal fans talking about you on the Internet?
Matt: We broke up and there was all this time that went by. So when we got back together all those years later, it was like an anomaly. I had been working on High On Fire that whole time. Al took a few years off and started Om. But when we got back together as Sleep, we were shocked by the response to the shows that we did. So we thought it would be cool to keep doing this, but our drummer Chris wasn’t into touring so we got Jason and began playing more and more shows. He’s a member of the band now. He knew us since we were little kids, because he’s a few years older than us, so he already knew our music, our style.
How long did the songs on The Sciences exist before you recorded them?
Matt: Some of them were kind of finished but not really, so we just went back and assessed what we had in the riff vault and re-hashed and re-wrote to make them work as songs.
Jason: A couple of the songs were actually from way back in the catalog. “Sonic Titan” was previously released. It was recorded at Gilman Street in the ’90s. But we wanted to properly get that one in the studio. And then some of the songs, there might’ve been a riff we did years and years ago when we first started jamming together in this incarnation, and we would add another tune to it and change it and modify it. Then we had stuff that was much more recent within the last year or two. It was apparent on where we were at in our headspace as we were writing and creating it. The whole album is a collection of things that literally span twenty years.
Matt: Then when it came to crunch time, it just seems like we had to mix and mash and take notes on BPMs and take notes on timing in order to make the things that worked together fit. It was like working on a long, streaming puzzle.
What inspired the song “Antarcticans Thawed”?
Al Cisneros: I think probably a lot of acid (laughs).
Matt: Al wrote those lyrics long before there were any real fears about the melting polar ice caps.
Sleep is so indebted to Black Sabbath. But one thing that really set them apart from the other heavy rock bands of the ’70s was the jazz element to the original lineup and the way by which Geezer Butler and Bill Ward swung as a rhythm section. How much does that aspect of Sabbath come into play in Sleep?
Al: Honestly, I don’t think it does so much. Not directly at least.
Matt: I was going to school for music theory and jazz improv when we were writing Holy Mountain. And for me, I think that my jazz improv training has a lot to do with how I play solos. I don’t know if jazz itself is the influence, but definitely in the solos, the jazz improv studying I was doing at a certain moment continues to seep in.
Jason: Slowly over the years, I’m starting to realize that a lot of the music I was raised up with, though I didn’t want to admit it when I was younger, has creeped up and made an impression on my playing. My parents listened to a lot of contemporary jazz; some crazy, complicated stuff with smokin’ musicianship on it, and a lot of mellower stuff as well. It may not have influenced my playing, but it definitely showed me there were a whole bunch of different ways to play the drums.
Al: I just saw Pharoah Sanders recently in Santa Fe. He was amazing. He was just like fuck it and went where the music took him, and the trio followed the best they could. To see a guy who is close to 90 play with that much power was pretty inspiring.
How’s it been being back on the road?
Matt: It’s been great. This is our first time playing out with the new songs, and I’m excited about the challenge of playing them each night. We’ve been playing the same songs for so fucking long (laughs).
Jason: That’s gonna be the really exciting thing for us. At this day and age, if you don’t want everybody’s first experience of your new material to be a crappy iPhone recording from the back of a club, then you have to keep things under wraps. And we’ve basically been sitting on a lot of this material for so long, and it’s going to be really exciting to finally play these songs in different acoustic environments other than our rehearsal space or the studio. When you get on stage, that’s when the songs get some meat on their bones and start morphing a little bit. They get even more pocket and more creative as the tour goes on.
Al: There’s so much openness to these new songs, we can go into new territories with them.
How did you link up with Third Man for The Sciences?
Jason: A friend of ours suggested we check them out, then Al and Matt went down to Third Man when we played Nashville about two years ago. Then we sat down and had a meeting with them, which went really quick. The record was already done and mixed, and we were already going into the mastering for it. That was our plan all along. We’ll just make a record, and then we will find a home for it instead of finding a home and then working on a record. We wanted to finish it on our terms.
Matt: Yeah, and not owe anybody. It’s a much better feeling.
Jason: So when we met with Third Man, they were like, “You wanna do it with us? We’ll put the record out and we’ll pretty much stay out of your way.” And that was the perfect deal; it was exactly what we were looking for. Plus, they have their own vinyl pressing plant. What more could you want?
Matt: We were originally going to just throw it in a room with the record industry and see what came about.
Are any of you White Stripes or Jack White fans at all?
Matt: I have respect for him as a musician. I definitely dig on the oddness of what he does. He’s a good musician, man.
Jason: I have a daughter, so in the early 2000s I had no choice but to listen to the White Stripes (laughs). I’m pretty familiar with everything he’s done. Yeah, I was pretty blown away a few times. I’m not crazy about garage rock, but I was hearing how they were doing it and I really loved the simplicity and straightforwardness of just two people playing rock music.
Matt: Yeah, it’s pretty legit.
Jason: And the stuff he’s doing now is pretty all-over-the-map. It’s amazing. I really like it because he’s one of those musicians who is like, “I’m going to just play what I want to play, and you can take it or leave it.”
What are your thoughts on how weed culture has evolved since the release of Dopesmoker?
Al: It’s cool to be able to just go and get your medicine rather than spend the whole day hoping to meet up with a dealer somewhere. It’s an easier way of life.
Jason: I think it’s about time. There was prohibition on alcohol for years and years and years and finally they lifted it. They attempted to clamp down on alcohol and make it this inaccessible thing, but the will of the people wouldn’t have it because alcohol was part of the culture. I think people are finally starting to accept that weed is not the evil thing they try to make it into and its part of American culture. Eventually, it’s gonna be exactly like going down to the corner store and buying some beer.
Matt: I think a lot of people are finally starting to realize that in keeping things like alcohol or marijuana or anything like that illegal they are missing out on revenue. And if you keep it illegal, the only people who will make revenue are the ones who are illegally selling it, which they call criminals. Colorado turned its economy around.
Jason: One thing that’s unfortunate to me is how you have a lot of people profiting off making weed illegal for all these years. It would be sad to see those same people continuing to profit off its legalization. I could see the same companies running prisons eventually invest in marijuana.
Well, it’s definitely not as drastic as it was 20 years ago in regards to tolerance for people who partake.
Jason: It’s also a relief, too. At least out in California, it’s been a long time since you hope to not be thrown in jail for smoking a joint. I’ve been touring since the ’80s, and I remember going on tour with Neurosis and having weed in the van and just praying to God that we didn’t get pulled over in the South. We would’ve never been seen again, and that’s just absolutely ridiculous.
Matt: And in Florida, they pulled us over for like 14 hours and tried to take the band’s money because it was over ten grand. It turned into all this bullshit over stems and seeds. That shit’s gotta stop, because that’s not freedom at all.
Finally, how did you get Tony Iommi’s face on that piece of toast?
Al: It just came out of the toaster like that, man. I can’t explain it.