Interview: Des Kensel (Ex-High On Fire)
Most people would break under some of the shit we had to endure, even if some of it was self-inflicted, but I had belief. I had belief in the band but more importantly, belief in myself.
Des Kensel was a founding member of High On Fire and played on all of the band’s eight albums including their last album, the Grammy award winning Electric Messiah. He decided to leave the band last year to pursue other opportunities but leaves behind a vast legacy as drummer of the one of most revered metal bands of recent times. Gavin Brown had the chance to talk to Des about his career with High On Fire and the highlights of his time with the band as well as his pre High On Fire musical history and what the future holds for him.
E&D: Are you working on anything musical at the moment and in the future once all this madness is over?
Des: Right now anything musically I work on is just random ideas recorded for possible future projects. I have spoken with other musician friends about starting projects but nothing that has evolved or gotten off the ground yet. My main goal and concern right now is getting ahead of this whole pandemic situation.
E&D: How are you keeping busy during this lockdown?
Des: Well, trying to stay busy with exercise and repair projects. Taking some online courses to broaden my skill set. Also trying to keep my two kids busy and away from each other. They’ve been cooped up in the house for a few months now and their new hobby is annoying each other, which annoys the crap out of me!
E&D: How did you start playing drums in the first place?
Des: I started playing drums when I was 10yrs old in my school’s 5th grade band. Ironically enough, even though I loved bands like Judas Priest, AC/DC, and Ozzy Osbourne, the first song we played was Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’. Since I was into metal, playing a wood or string instrument in the band was out of the question! Electric guitar wasn’t an option so I went with the drums. After joining the school band and showing interest in the drums, my parents bought me 2-3 drums every year, one for Christmas and the other for my birthday (I have a July birthday) until I had a full 5-piece kit with some cymbals. At home I would play along to my favorite albums on my Sony Walkman. That thing was loud!!! I’d put the headphones on and then a baseball cap real tight over them to make it as loud as possible, not just to keep them from falling off. My friends loved watching me play Mötley Crüe’s ‘Red Hot’. The drum intros to ‘Over The Mountain’ and ‘Little Dolls’ by Ozzy were other popular requests from the neighborhood kids too.
E&D: Who are your biggest influences as a drummer?
Des: Well, the first one I’d have to say would be Tommy Lee. Mostly because my first concert I attended was Mötley Crüe with my Dad at the Hartford Civic Center. It completely blew my mind!!! His energy was unreal, then the drum solo!?!? Doing a solo at 90 degrees was very impressionable for a 10yr old kid. After that the next drummer that really made me think differently about how drums could be played was Dave Lombardo. I was 12 or 13 when I first heard Reign In Blood. I was floored!!! I just had to learn ‘Angel of Death’! There are many other drummers and bands that have influenced my playing but those 2 were probably my first drumming idols as a kid.
E&D: You recently left High On Fire after twenty one years in the band and as a founding member. How did it feel leaving the band after all that time?
Des: Parting with the band was difficult considering all of my accomplishments and the time and effort I put into it. Years of hard work and sacrifice go into being in a band like High On Fire and it took years to gain the recognition the band has now. Also, I was the one to do all the extra work that goes into making sure a band stays afloat. Every band needs at least one responsible guy, somehow that ended up being me. Besides writing contributions and performing, I took care of all the merchandise, the finances, booking tours in the beginning, financing the vans, the trailers, everything. But if there is anything I can take away from all of this, it’s that I learned I have the strength and the drive to do it. I was able to see the job through and succeed under difficult circumstances. Most people would break under some of the shit we had to endure, even if some of it was self-inflicted, but I had belief. I had belief in the band but more importantly, belief in myself. But in the end, everything happens for a reason right? All things come to an end, and someone, somewhere must have other plans for me.
E&D: Did you play in any bands before High On Fire?
Des: Yes, played in a band out of New Haven, CT called Mindwar. We pretty much just played shows in CT, Boston and NYC. We played a lot at a club in New Haven called The Tune Inn. We would play with other local bands like Jasta 14 and Higher Force. Jasta 14 would later go on to being Hatebreed, that was Jamey Jasta’s band and Higher Force was Pete Morcey’s band, the singer from 100 Demons, also a CT band called Dismay that had Sean Martin from Hatebreed. We also played quite often at CBGBs because the guitar and bass player in Mindwar were brothers and they had an older brother who was the house sound engineer there. He would get us on shows and we would always get put on as the “closing act”. Those were always the worst slots, ha! We would go on at like 2 in the morning and play to 10 people. We then signed to a label out of Berlin, Germany and got to spend a lot of time touring and recording over there. It was around 1993-95 or so? That was an awesome experience. Berlin is an amazing city, probably still one of my favorites! Also being there so close to when the wall came down was a trip!
E&D: What was the extreme music scene in Connecticut and in Oakland like when you moved there?
Des: I grew up in Connecticut and moved to San Francisco in 1996. I then moved across the bay to Oakland in 97/98. But, in the mid to late 80s and early 90s, there was a great hardcore punk scene in CT. I would go to a club called the Anthrax and saw all the New York hardcore bands like Sick Of It All, Murphy’s Law, Judge, Gorilla Biscuits. It was great! I did about 50 stage dives at my first Sick Of It All show.
E&D: What was the first gig you ever went to?
Des: My first concert was Mötley Crüe at the Hartford Civic Center in 1983 with my Dad but my first real show was Sick Of It All and Burn at the Anthrax in Norwalk, CT in either 1989 or 1990?
E&D: Were metal and punk/hardcore both influences on you as a musician?
Des: Yes for sure. I only had access to so much music being a young kid in the suburbs before the Internet was invented. I had to rely on either rock magazines like Circus and Hit Parader, or by word of mouth and college radio shows to get info on new bands to look into. So in the early 80s it was all metal for me. I got turned on to Metallica and that was a game changer. The speed and tempos blew me away! I was down in my basement playing along to Master Of Puppets on my Walkman for a good 3-4 months straight! I was 12 I think? That opened the door to more thrash, punk and hardcore. Then when I was about 13 or 14, bands like Metallica just weren’t doing it for me as much anymore and I was looking for something even more dirty and raw. That’s right around the time when a friend lent me GBH The Clay Years and Agnostic Front’s Cause For Alarm. I went head first into hardcore and punk after listening to those 2 records and I couldn’t get enough, fast enough. I was obsessed! I’d listen to the punk show on the college radio station and record the whole thing on cassette in hopes that I’d find that next song to freak me the fuck out! I’d then go to the record store and buy as many cassettes as I could from the bands I’d just learned about with however much money I had.
E&D: How did High On Fire start in the first place?
Des: High On Fire started in San Jose, CA around 1997 or 1998. Sleep had just broken up and I was living in San Francisco at the time. A mutual friend Matt and I had that lived in Oakland had introduced us to each other. We started jamming for a while as a 4 piece, Matt and a guy named Carl on guitar, and this guy named Ron on bass. George would actually come to rehearsals to try and sing. With this lineup things just didn’t seem to click. There were different writing styles and a difference in opinions of which direction the band should go in. Because of this I decided to leave. Soon after, Matt’s mom passed away and while he was driving back to CA from her funeral, he stopped at a payphone to call me to say he wanted to continue jamming with me. That meant a lot especially considering the timing. There was definitely a connection there between the 2 of us, especially while writing. So upon his return, him and I got together and started putting together a lot of The Art of Self Defense. George had already played bass in a previous band in San Jose, his vibe and style worked on bass and things instantly clicked, and that was that. George wrote the main riff to ‘Fireface’, a crowd favorite still to this day.
E&D: Were you a fan of Sleep and did you know Matt from those days?
Des: You know I had never heard of Sleep while still on the east coast. My scene and circle of friends at the time weren’t really into that. My roommate/band mate at the time turned me on to the Melvins and I had gotten turned on to Neurosis from some German punk friends. Then from there Buzzoven after seeing them on tour with Neurosis, but as far as doomy/sludgy stuff, I didn’t hear about Sleep until getting to San Francisco. Same with Kyuss and all the other stoner bands that High On Fire were compared to.
E&D: What are your main memories of the early days of High On Fire?
Des: My main memories from the early days of High On Fire? Drinking a LOT of beer! We always had beer and no money. I’d do beer math where I’d divide the total ounces of beer by the total price and pick which beer would be cheapest per ounce. That’s all that mattered at the end of the day, that we got as much beer for our money as possible. Beer 1st, rehearsal 2nd.
E&D: What bands were the biggest influence on High On Fire?
Des: SABBATH. At first while writing and arranging, I’d always think what would Sabbath do. On that first record, I definitely looked to Bill Ward for some inspiration. A lot of the guitar licks like on “Last” reminded me a bit of ‘Wheels of Confusion’ on Vol. 4 so I kind of went off that formula. When the guitar started licken’, I started fillin’.
E&D: What were some of the most memorable experiences for you when you were in the studio recording High On Fires albums?
Des: I remember doing our first 3 song demo at a studio in Oakland called Sharkbite. My friend Matt Farina was working as an intern there. I worked out a deal with him that if he let us come in the middle of the night to track when no one else was there and didn’t charge us, I’d let him engineer the demo. He wanted the experience and we wanted the free demo. So one evening we loaded our gear up and then went to the recording studio. We loaded in pretty late and tracked until 6 or 7am the next morning. I was working in the warehouse of a delivery company at the time and had to be at work at 7:30am. Unfortunately to keep the midnight oil going we had our normal case or so of beer and also some Jägermeister. Since we were there till the sun came up, I had to go straight to work from the studio. At this point I was pretty intoxicated and knew I should not be at work. So after clocking in and helping load some of the trucks, I decided I’m not going to work anymore for the day and proceeded to blow off the fire extinguisher in the warehouse and get that white dust all over everything. I have no idea why I did that, it just seemed like a good idea at the time. I then go in the side alley and tried to get some sleep in one of the work vans but I couldn’t sleep, I was still pumped from the Jäger and the adrenaline from tracking our first demo. I then decided I should just go home so I started to walk to the train station. On the way to the train station, I met some drunk, homeless Hispanic guy who thought I was some sort of angel and I ended up hanging out with him under an overpass in an alley. I couldn’t understand a word he said because he was wasted and was speaking Spanish but I didn’t care. I was just happy because he was happy that an angel had stopped to hang out with him. Oddly enough, I did not get fired?
E&D: What are your favorite High On Fire songs ever?
Des: Well, I don’t exactly have one favorite one but if I were to listen to one right now it would probably be ‘Electric Messiah’. I’m pretty proud of the drumming on that one. I do remember playing it on tour in Europe in 2018, I got the BPM’s close to 190 or so? Not quite ‘Angel Of Death‘ speed but close. Luckily that one took over from ‘Snakes’ as the last song in the set because it kicked my ass!
E&D: The band worked with both Steve Albini and Kurt Ballou in the studio, how was it working with those guys and what did they bring to the High On Fire albums they worked on?
Des: We got to work with many great and famous recording engineers. First was Billy Anderson. I was trippin’ out that we were recording with the guy who did Houdini! That record, and other Melvins ones, were probably first to bridge me from punk/hardcore to the more sludgy stuff. After those first few with Billy we went with Steve Albini. I really liked Big Black, even though they didn’t have a drummer, and Shellac. I was also a big fan of Jesus Lizard so I was trippin’ out that we were working with him. His studio is amazing! Also he gets incredible drum tones! Then after him was Jack Endino, the engineer on Nirvana’s Bleach. Come to find out Jack was originally from CT too! He was great, what an awesome guy with a super chill vibe and great personality to be with in the studio. They all were actually. Then after Jack was Greg Fidleman, who had just worked on Slayer’s World Painted Blood, some Metallica stuff and with Rick Rubin too. Those are some heavy hitters right there! Lastly was Kurt Ballou. He had his studio dialed in man! I was very impressed with his drum sounds. He kind of got the best of both worlds, big, roomy, and boomy while also tight and punchy. I enjoyed working closely with all of them and definitely took something away from each and every one of them.
E&D: You have toured all over the world with the band, what were the most memorable experiences you had on the road?
Des: There were definitely lots of memorable experiences on the road but the most memorable would have to be my first time in Japan. It was amazing! Tokyo especially. The second would have to be a New Zealand/Australia/Japan tour we did in 2011. We were in Christchurch, New Zealand with the Melvins for the 2011 earthquake then again in Tokyo, Japan 2 weeks later for that earthquake. I couldn’t believe I was in 2 earthquakes, in 2 continents, in 2 weeks.
E&D: What were some of the best gigs that you ever played with High On Fire? I saw you guys play with Mastodon in a pub in Nottingham back in 2002, that was immense!
Des: I’d have to say doing a 2-week tour of Europe with Metallica was pretty amazing. I can remember playing in front of 45,000 people at the Olympic stadium in Budapest, Hungary. That was an incredible feeling! We also had some killer small room shows where the walls were sweating and the energy from the crowd was so high. Something to say about those small sweatbox shows where the crowd goes nuts! Kind of reminded me of when I was a kid at The Anthrax. Although our crowd wouldn’t go as crazy as a Sick Of It All show in 1990, we still had some barnburners.
E&D: Who did you have the most fun touring with?
Des: Without a doubt Mastodon. Surrounded By Thieves and Remission came out at the same time so we packaged up for a US, European and Japan tour. We had a blast with those dudes!!! That would have been around the time you saw us in Nottingham in 2002.
E&D: What song did you always look forward to playing live the most?
Des: ‘Snakes For The Divine’ because that was usually the last song of the set and that meant I was done! Our set could be pretty exhausting sometimes.
E&D: High On Fire won a Grammy award in 2018, was it a surreal moment when they announced you had won?
Des: Yes it was for sure. Being nominated was enough of an honor but winning was just unreal. Totally unexpected!
E&D: What was the experience of the Grammy Awards like?
Des: It was cool. I was able to travel to Los Angeles with my wife so sharing that moment with her was special.
E&D: What have been some of the proudest moments in your musical career?
Des: Other than winning the Grammy, I’d have to say signing autographs and taking pictures with fans in front of my son. He came to one of our shows in Dallas and seeing the look on his face when fans were asking for my autograph and then wanting to take pictures with me, that was a pretty proud moment.