Rock History

Dopesmoker: How Sleep’s Magnum Opus Ended the Band’s Career

Sleep Dopesmoker Cover Art

We dish out plenty of love for Kyuss as the grandfathers of Stoner Rock, but we’d be foolish not to acknowledge Sleep’s contributions—to both Stoner Rock and Doom Metal. While Sleep’s legacy lives on, its life was cut short by the band’s own self-indulgence in a 1990s version of Icarus and his wax wings. Dopesmoker, the album that was essentially a one-hour song, cut the band off at the knees. 

Sleep’s Early Days

Fronted by bassist Al Cisneros and balanced by dummer Chris Hakius and guitarist Matt Pike, Sleep’s first album was 1991’s Volume One, an album drenched in Doom Metal dread. While the album earned them a small, devoted cult following, they didn’t enjoy much attention outside of the Doom Metal scene. 

In 1992, Sleep released Holy Mountain, 52 minutes of Sabbath- and weed-inspired riffing. It was a turning point for the band, widening their sonic palette for greater appeal. Holy Mountain was a bridge from Doom Metal to Stoner Rock, and it quickly became one of Stoner Rock’s most important albums—right up there with Kyuss’s Blues for the Red Sun (another 1992 album). 

Thanks to Holy Mountain, the band became huge in the San Francisco metal scene—and beyond.

From Holy Mountain to Dopesmoker

Met with positive reviews and decent fanfare, Holy Mountain gave Sleep some breathing room for their next album. After record label Earache dropped the band from their roster, Sleep signed with London Records for two reasons:

  1. London Records promised total artistic freedom.
  2. London Records didn’t have any other metal acts, which made the band members think they would receive preferential treatment from the label.

With a six-figure deal signed, the band got to work (and, as the legend goes, smoked a lot of weed).

Where It All Went Wrong

Recording Dopesmoker should have been simple enough; the band had been playing it for years on stage and in hotel rooms while they crisscrossed the touring circuit. But the song nicknamed “Jerusalem” (because of the Middle Eastern influences on the band and the sound of the song itself) proved incredibly difficult to capture. 

First was the technical issues. Recording a 60-minute song on tape proved problematic because a reel-to-reel tape only holds 22 minutes at a time. This meant the final copy had to be spliced together perfectly and the band had to split the song into three different sections. 

Then there were the artistic challenges. 60-minutes is a lot of material to remember, especially on a meandering track like “Dopesmoker.” Playing wasn’t made any easier by their studio setup. Recording engineer Billy Andersen is on record saying that the guitars were recorded on custom-built amps designed to be so loud, no one from the band was capable of going into the same room as them. While the music blasted through the amps, more than half a dozen microphones stood nearby to pike up the monstrous sound waves billowing through the air. Sleep’s Dopesmoker was a powerful force.

Worse, the band couldn’t settle on a final version. Although they’d rehearsed the song numerous times in casual settings, entering the studio threw them off their rhythm. The process became so difficult, they actually bought studio time on two different occasions, with a meaty break in between for the band to refocus. The process of recording caused the band members to second-guess themselves, and the song gradually grew slower and darker. 

According to Matt Pike, they had  multiple versions of the song by the time they finally left the studio the second time. 

As if all of that wasn’t enough, there was the subject matter. Although it’s a single song, Dopesmoker is a concept album at heart, telling the tale of the Weedians trekking through the desert to pick up their bongs and get high.

London Records’ Reaction

London Records may have originally granted Sleep artistic freedom, but the rep who eventually received Dopesmoker wasn’t pleased. The record label refused to released the album as a one-hour song. The band refused to budge. 

Obviously, the album eventually found its way out, but it was too late for Sleep. Matt Pike split and formed High on Fire with drummer Des Kensel and bassist George Rice. Al Cisneros and Chris Hakius pressed on together by forming OM

An unauthorized version of the album leaked in 1999, but a legit copy didn’t reach record stores until 2003. By then it was too late; Sleep was gone. 

Dopesmoker Today and Sleep’s Legacy

In 2009, Sleep reunited and began popping up occasionally at festivals. After nearly a decade of sporadic playing, the band released The Sciences in 2018, a return to form that paralleled much of what made Holy Mountain so popular.

It’s hard to guess what would have happened with Sleep’s career if they hadn’t sunk their own ship by refusing to budge on the Dopesmoker concept. Regardless, they have cemented their cult status on the Mount Rushmore of Stoner Rock grandfathers. While they may lean further to the Doom side of Rock, their praise of marijuana (“Marijuanaut’s Theme” on The Sciences starts with a bong rip) gives them the push into Stoner Rock territory.

And it’s not as if Sleep died right there with the London Records breakup. The individual members carried on in their own projects. As we said, singer/bassist Al Cisneros and drummer Chris Haikus went on to form the Doom Metal duo OM (now a trio). In many ways, OM reaches for that same religious high ground that Dopesmoker ascended to, but it does so by working in influences from Tibetan and Gregorian chant. Guitarist Matthew Pike went on to play with High on Fire—and he won a Grammy last year for his won on “Electric Messiah.”

So, even as Sleep thrives in its reunion, it never really died out. The band lived on in their own Sleep-esque projects, and Dopesmoker has gone down as one of the most important Doom/Stoner records ever recorded.

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