A photographic account of heavy music in Portland, Maine
It’s the dawn of a new era.
Sylvia, which means “of the woods,” had been lying low. In July 2014, the band announced a hiatus, ostensibly to work out new material for an album (due sometime this year). Aside from appearances at a fundraiser for Grime Studios and an opening spot for Today is the Day, one of Portland’s loudest bands had suddenly fallen silent. It now appears some of that time was spent sorting out personnel issues.
We checked in recently with Sylvia guitarist Sean Libby to learn about the band’s new configuration, but we also wanted to learn more about a now-legendary moment that took place last month.
On Jan. 11, High on Fire was in town for a show at Port City Music Hall. Before they took the stage, however, Libby presented guitarist/vocalist Matt Pike with a gift of a 1974 Gibson Les Paul Black Beauty — a gesture that quickly became the talk of the town.
Libby, a thirty-something native Mainer, acquired the Black Beauty at the turn of the new century. He, too, received it as a gift, from friend Jeremy Pelletier. Pelletier gave Libby just one condition: he could never sell the guitar; he could only give it away to someone who deserved it.
Black Beauties are prized guitars. They’re rare and expensive, costing anywhere between $3,500 and $5,000. They’re also powerful. In the words of Conifer-alum Johnny Althoff, a Black Beauty is “thick, chunky, smooth [and] built to riff.”
“Have you ever driven a ’69 Camaro SS?” Althoff said. “The Beauty is kinda like that.”
So, without further ado, we present Sean Libby’s take on rehearsing with Sylvia’s new drummer, shooting the breeze with Matt Pike, and finding Candy Man’s doppelgänger.
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Post Mortem: Sylvia parted ways with drummer Andrew Barron last fall. What was the reason?
Sean Libby: We parted ways with Andrew for a few reasons. Scheduling was always an issue, not just with him but all of us. Communication was a factor, too.
For some reason it always seemed extra hard to communicate what we wanted from each other without some misfire and communication breakdown. I suppose if you asked him, he would tell you it was usually my fault for not understanding what he was trying to relay musically. But when we did “get it,” it really slayed. He wrote some of the most interesting parts I’ve ever played to. Sometimes it would take me a minute to hear the direction of his ideas, but when we clicked, it ruled.
He also really didn’t care for me personally, I guess. I am kind of a dick … but everyone knows what happens when a dick meets an asshole.
But seriously, it was really fun making our record and playing those shows with him. Some fun, crazy shit happened along the way.
PM: Sylvia is defined by complicated, ever-changing parts and rhythms. Has it been difficult for Michael to absorb it all? Has the music evolved or changed in the process? What can people expect to hear Saturday?
SL: The drums are definitely built around some complex parts. Andrew was a math wizard, hence his A.D.D. brain forging some massively weird changes that he seamlessly made seem like a 4/4 rhythm, when they were in 7.
Michael has crushed learning them. He’s a very disciplined practitioner of his art. He studied the songs and has kept 98 percent true to the original foundations, what Drew laid down. We’ve had to remind (Anderson) to keep things sludgy and gross and sloppy. Michael isn’t used to sloppy, which is great, but we require it a little bit.
Reminding him to retard the beat is always a fun thing to yell out loud at him during practice. He knows the songs aren’t a metered race, they aren’t musical sentences that need to be exacted the same way every time; they are our interpretations of how familiar we are with what we do when we do it.
As far as evolving, he definitely interprets a few parts with his own flavor. I’m really, really looking forward to the new tunes coming. In-fucking-sane.
You will hear 1,000 percent Sylvia on Saturday.
PM: What’s it like trying to absorb a new person into an established dynamic? Is there hazing?
SL: The absorption was pretty easy. We all knew he was the fit. As far as revealing our super-secret hazing rituals: I’d tell you, but then I’d have to haze you.
PM: Tempting. Michael also has a sweet van. Does this mean Sylvia will cover some ground in 2015? Are you looking for tour partners?
SL: Yeah, he has a sweet vandwagon and, more importantly, he’s a really gifted, mechanical-minded bandmate. If something broke down in the desert, I’m fairly certain he would be able to fix it with some matches, sand, and a bent nail. And some whiskey. He’s kind of our Mikegyver.
Tour partners is another secret we can’t divulge yet.
PM: Last month, while High on Fire was in town, I had a chance to meet Matt Pike outside Port City Music Hall. While I stood there saying awkward, fanboy things to him, you walked out and Matt thanked you for the guitar you gave him earlier that night — a Gibson Les Paul Black Beauty. From what I understand, you had met up with him last summer in Boston after the Sleep show, and told him you’d give him the guitar someday. He must have thought you were bullshitting him in Boston. Was he surprised you came through with that offer? Can you retell the highlights of the story, including the big question: Why the hell would you give away a rare, expensive, legendary guitar?
SL: Yeah, I managed to get backstage passes (to Sleep) through Lee Rader because she knew the sound guy. After the set we went down to meet the band. I didn’t know we were the only ones allowed back that night. It allowed for some rad one-on-one conversations with the guys. In the process of shooting the shit, I asked Matt about the guitar he had stolen from him. You could feel the mood drop. I told him I had something to replace that karmic hole.
I asked him if he liked Gibsons. He said “I make them my bitch.” After we got done laughing our asses off, I told him I had a special one for him. I told him what it was, how I got it, and why I was giving it to him. I’d rather that guitar have a destiny in his hands than mine. He deserves it. I knew the right thing to do was to give him a gift of appreciation and karmic replacement.
He didn’t believe me. I told him next time he was in Portland I’d be waiting for him. He said HOF would be plowing thru in winter. I said, “Prove it.”
I messaged him the day of the show and worked it out to hook up in the green room. I walked in and he just started smiling and he gave one of his hearty Matt laughs. He introduced me to the rest of the band and the sound guy. I said “Here, this is yours now. You deserve this and it’s my honor to give it to a force I admire.”
He opened it and from that point on the room was full of strange, happy confusion. No one could believe I was gifting this beauty. It felt great to make one of my musical inspirations completely happy, confused, and genuinely excited.
I told him he couldn’t sell it. He could only give it away to someone who deserved it. He agreed with a handshake and an enormous grin.
He mentioned that he relies heavily on karmic events. I said this was ours. He said if I ever wanted it back to give him a call. I stopped him and said some things that made him understand that it was his now. Forever.
I told him to have a good show and I’d see him around sometime.
Fast forward 4 hours later and many shots deep at DTL, we decided to head back to my apartment and party until his bus left. He jammed on my acoustic, and sang new High on Fire tunes, and old Zep and Sabbath tunes. It ruled. We exchanged numbers, hugged, and thanked each other and he said the next time he’s around, I’m definitely there.
He also reminded me, with a sly grin and a serious eye, not to tell anyone about the powerful secrets he shared with me.
I reassured him I wouldn’t. All was right in my world.
That guitar deserves its new future. Matt has already played it during last few shows. It’s more than likely on the album they just pushed out of their brains, too.
PM: It’s unnerving to meet famous people, especially the ones you admire most. There’s always a tremendous fear that the mystery will be lost, or they’ll be assholes. How did Matt hold up?
SL: I’ve been lucky enough to say “thank you” to a lot of my inspirations. Pike was one of them. I approach badass musicians from the point of view that they’re ordinary people in extraordinary situations, but just as human as you or I, rock-god status or not.
So that’s how I talk to them or mostly anyone I engage: genuine interest without an agenda. Pretentiousness isn’t his bag.
When we met up at the bar after the show, we dove into some crazy talks. Everything from science-based myths and demonology, to guitars, amps, and tricks of his trade, to family life. Normal stuff.
He really dug Portland and hanging out with everyone after the show. The crowd I was with was pretty chill.
When I introduced him to Candy at the bar, the first thing he said was how much he looks like Troy Sanders (of Mastodon). Candy and I burst out laughing, and I told him about the time we were hanging with (Mastodon) and I had Brent (Hinds) call Troy over to stand next to Candy to compare doppelgängers. It was uncanny. I just know those bastards are gonna call Candy up to the big leagues someday when Troy wants to pull an Eddie-and-the-Cruisers exit. Seamless integration.
So to answer your question: How did Matt hold up? Like one of the most dope motherfuckers on Planet Badass.
PM: Final question: High on Fire or Sleep?
SL: High on Sleep.
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