This article is part of our series 'Nice Song, What's It About?,' where we revisit old greats and go deep to get the stories behind them. To see the column's archive, click here.
There's more than eight-minutes of slowly unravelling, down-tuned riffs before Sleep's Al Cisneros sings the first line of "Dopesmoker." It's another 15 seconds before he's completed the opening lyric: "Drop out of life / with bong in hand."
Sleep were never in a rush to write or release music, but not even the San Jose doom metal trio could foresee the delays that kept their magnum opus from the light of day. After almost three years of writing and recording, their label, London Records, refused to release the sprawling, 63-minute, single-song album about a group of weed priests traversing the holy land in a hotbox caravan.
The stress was enough to break up the band. Guitarist Matt Pike went on to form High on Fire, while Al and drummer Chris Hakius took a half-decade break from music. An edited version of record emerged in 1999 under the name Jerusalem and cut into multiple tracks. In 2003, TeePee released a more agreeable, 63-minute version. In 2012, three years after their reunion, Southern Lord released a remastered version, the closest thing to a definitive cut. While it's Al's voice that booms over Sleep's gargantuan riffs, the perennially shirtless guitarist Matt Pike has become the band's most visible advocate.
We spoke to Pike about the origins Sleep's most ambitious work.
Noisey: What was the genesis of "Dopesmoker"? Matt Pike: When we started writing it, me, Al and Chris were a little younger. We'd signed to a major label, and they wanted short tracks and shit they can put on the radio. We weren't really feeling that. We were smoking a lot of weed. Me and Al were dropping acid and doing all sorts of weird shit. We wanted to do something pretty epic that would stand the test of time and stuff that people would talk about for the next however many years. We wanted to do a symphony of complete stoner riffs.
We hadn't signed to London Records yet, but at the same time we were having issues with—I can't mention the name, but the label we were on at the time—and they kind of grounded us. So the whole time we were kind of in the shit house. We were going to practice every day, waking up, having coffee, burning the chalice and just being a think tank. That lasted a couple years. We had put together so much music that we were like, why don't we just make one long-ass fuckin' song? And we don't even play games. You play it live, you don't have to fuckin' stop and say hi. Just fuckin' play it and walk off.
Did you foresee that it would become this huge hour-long epic?
No, we didn't know. And London eventually shelved it. I was like, dude, we made kind of a masterpiece that I think a lot of people are gonna really dig on. I knew its value. I don't know if we recorded it exactly the way we all wanted to, but it turned out how it turned out. There's no art that's like dispensable or destroyable, but I think that one sunk into the people more than even knew. We didn't know if we accomplished something or not. We were going through a lot of shit. My mum was dying. There was just a bunch of shit going on. It took us a couple years of writing it, where like it's finally complete, and then it got shelved. I think everybody just felt like someone shit in our cornflakes.
Was there an almost religious or ritualistic element to the writing and recording?
did thI don't know if I'd say if it was religious. I'd definitely say where we were at, the way we played at the time and what we did was very spiritual. It had a lot to do with our hearts and minds just as much as it had to do with the technical aspect, if not even more. The whole thing is about the way we felt, and it was us writing about the times, or our times, and the metaphors. We were living that metaphor. All of us were smoking pot, doing acid, that kind of stuff. We were living it, dude. That was a time in my life where I smoked more pot than I ever have, ever. It got me to a point where I didn't like to smoke pot for a few years. Now we have edibles so I just eat pot.
Did you blew some of the advance you got from London Records on weed?
Not the entire thing. We bought green amps and weed and paid for recording. And yeah, we bought a lot of fucking pot. A lot. Each one of us had 30 ounces at all times of different breeds. I don't even know if the cloning thing was going on as bad as it was back then. People would grow different weed and we'd have every different kind. And we'd just sit there and burn the chalice all day. I don't know if you've ever smoked out of a coconut chalice with a hose, but dude, it's the highest you can possibly get. You forget your name, your address, you talk to the dog and the dog talks back. It gets fucking weird.
What do you think of the song's legacy?
It's astonishing and surprising. It's been a blessing because we've been able to go out and play all the old tunes and really make an impact and be kind of successful at what we're doing. I'm able to get together with my brothers, get paid, go on a stage and have the best time of my life and we joke around all day. It's a wonderful thing. Not everybody's that fortunate.
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