Khemmis, a heavy doom metal quartet from Denver USA, have enjoyed critical acclaim for their first three studio albums: Absolution (2015), Hunted (2016) and Desolation (2018).
Take care, stay safe and I’ll see you when we make it down in Australia.Ben Hutcherson, Khemmis
Their second album, Hunted, was their breakthrough work, earning a mid-tier spot in Rolling Stone’s Top 20 and claiming pole position in Decibel Magazine’s Top 40 in the Metal band category in 2016, catapulting the band’s influence into the outer reaches of US metal demographics and casting a netting them audiences across the Atlantic and Pacific.
Unsurprisingly, the validation of Hunted propelled their third album Desolation onto greater commercial success, installing the men from Colorado as champions of the heavy doom genre. With the combination of traditional metal, complemented by Ben Hutcherson’s possessed guttural vocals and Phil Pendergast’s clean melodic leads, the band is mighty talented, melodically sharp and fresh sounding.
I spoke with vocalist and guitarist Ben Hutcherson on musical honesty, integrity and their latest release, Doomed Heavy Metal, a mini album of crossroads; celebrating doom history, metal music and the dawn of a new chapter in the band’s evolution (with Nuclear Blast Records) that is sure to evolve into a masterpiece.
Get Doomed Heavy Metal on iTunes.
Sheldon: How’s life, and are you in Denver?
Ben: Yes I’m in Denver. It’s as good as it can be. It’s certainly a strange time. I’m locked in with my wife, my dog and my cats. I can’t really complain about being indoors with my favourite people. We’re doing all right and I think doing all right is doing pretty well with all things considered in the world right now.
Sheldon: That’s a good perspective. I live in Perth, literally halfway across the world from Denver, so one or two people may not be too familiar with Khemmis. So how would you categorise the sub genre or the genre of your band? From what I’m hearing there may be a mixed bag of sub genres?
Ben: Yes, I think the title of our new release kind of answer your question, “Doom Heavy Metal.” We embraced that description and to be honest I can’t remember who gave us that description. We started as a traditional doom band – loud amplifiers, fuzz pedals, where everything was really slow, but we quickly realised that we like the feeling of doom for the emotional, experiences and fears that are perhaps not readily available in other kinds of metal. We’re also influenced by so much, everything from old school death metal, second wave black metal, and grid core. But the Venn Diagram of influences – that overlap is where you’ll find Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Black Sabbath…every band is inspired by Sabbath and some of the extreme metal, but yeah doom heavy metal.
Sheldon: When I listen to “Beyond The Door” from the band’s second studio album Hunted, as soon as the vocals came in, it reminds me of Eddie Vader of Pearl Jam.
Ben: Honestly, I have not heard of that before, but I could hear that (chuckles)…and I think it’s because we have so many different influences outside of our shed. You get to a certain age and you stop saying, ‘I’m going to sing this and sound like person X’, or playing guitar solo like a specific player. There’re many influences that come together in so many years, but sounding – hopefully – as you. And it’s interesting that different people pick up different sounds…so I like your Eddy Vader comparison.
Sheldon: Do you think the sound of Khemmis has evolved over the last few years?
Ben: Yes, we’re always changing from one album to the next, but we always make sure that we sound like ourselves. I think that we do that by being honest about what the Khemmis sound is, while not inherently tied to just one single version of it. And I think that’s how you can hear us through each album. But If you listen to “Tom Asunder” of the first song (of the debut album) Absolution, and if you listen to “Maw of Time” the penultimate track of Desolation (the third album), you can hear it is the same four guys, but we are in many ways a fundamentally different band because five years later we’re not the same people outside of the band… why would we pretend we are inside of the band.
Sheldon: I recently had a chat with Nick Holmes from Paradise Lost, and we spoke about how much their style have evolved. Like in their album Host, it’s classified as as electronic pop synth for a doom metal band. Is that level of diversity even on the horizon?
Ben: I think for us to have a diverse body of work is important, and the same is true for bands like Paradise Lost or any band, where you constantly find ways to sound like yourself. But god, it’d be so boring if you’re trying to write the same songs over and over, and we’ve seen with bands that tried to do that – playing the hits or whatever. And our decision to cover “Rainbow in the Dark” (DIO cover), we recently realised it’s the shortest song that we’ve ever recorded which is just over four minutes. It’s a challenge to do that sort of thing. I think there is a way to put out more accessible songs and ways to put out less accessible songs, and still sound like Khemmis. Whether it is a poppy version for a full on death metal. I don’t think that you’ll hear specifically hear one or the other from us. You’ll likely to hear some snake around from us…like soaring, the melodic vocal lines…lots of guitar solos and a lot of guitar harmonies…things that make us…as us. We try to find different ways of doing it, each time.
Sheldon: The Band has released three albums; Absolution, Hunted and Desolation. They’re critically acclaimed, especially Hunted – ranked 11th on the Rolling Stones top 20 best metal album, and 1st on the Decibel Magazine; so is “Hunted” the benchmark album, or the band don’t really pay much attention to accolades.
Ben: Yeah, we got a lot of critical acclaims for Hunted. But Desolation sold better than anything we’ve done. So would we choose being critically acclaimed or more fans? Honestly at the end of the day it doesn’t change on our approach. It’s awesome, and I love being validated knowing what we do resonates with other people. I love getting new fans…I love meeting new fans and fans telling as how our music has affected them. But at the end of the day, we’re our own toughest critics, and we have yet to put out the best Khemmis. And hopefully we’ll always feel that way, and hopefully we’ll always be this excited with something new, and will be excited on what the next chapter looks like for Khemmis. I think of how far we’ve come in five years, but I also can’t wait to get back into the recording room, keep writing new materials, and to put out another album. I’m excited to share the next evolution of Khemmis sounds.
Sheldon: How about this – and don’t be humble about it. In your opinion, what makes not only a good or great album, but the best album – given Khemmis work has been cited as the best by some of the industry’s most prestigious media outlets.
Ben: I think there are two answers; the first answer is that it’s so subjective that there is no answer, because what a person love, the next person might hate. I think the album that has stood the test of time, or has received widespread critical acclaim, maybe the overarching thing is honesty and authenticity. And I really hate to say that ‘it comes from the heart’, because it’s so cliché to say that you really need to believe in something. Our rule is to write the songs that we want to hear and thankfully that has translated outside of the band that people want to hear it too. But if we write songs that we think other people want to hear, we would write crap – it wouldn’t be any good because it wouldn’t be authentic. And if I think about all the music that’s really affected me, it needs to feel that it comes from a real place…not something that was put together to sell records…not something that would put together to support a fake image…or a snapshot of the people who created the music. I think that’s frightening and I think that’s beautiful. I think art – whether it’s poetry, film or music – needs to be done in an authentic capacity.
Sheldon: So you wouldn’t be doing a Justin Bieber, or a Celine Dion style of music anytime soon (chuckles)
Ben: (chuckles) Well to be fair, if I was asked to play guitar for Justin Bieber – I’ll do it (pointing both index fingers to the screen). And I know that Justin Bieber makes a lot more money than Khemmis (chuckles). But as far as writing music, I’m not one of those guys – that because I’ve been playing metal since I was a kid – feels needs to talk down on pop music. I feel pop music does important stuff. It provides people a burst of serotonin; it distracts them from their workday. But I don’t know how to create that kind of music, and do it honestly. And going back to the comment of authenticity…the idea of someone from the underground and putting this image to become a popstar would be the most embarrassing thing…it would fail and would alienate themselves from the underground as well. I just don’t know how to do that, but when I figure out how to do it, you’ll catch me in the top forty charts (chuckling).
Sheldon: That’d be great (chuckles). So let’s talk about the latest release, “Doomed Heavy Metal”. It’s a unique title. It’s like naming my calico cat Mathilda “Calico Cat” or your Labrador dog “Labrador Dog”. How did this name come about?
Ben: First of all, we get it and calling any metal album with a “heavy metal” in the title could be a bit much. And if we are doing it without a bit of self awareness it might be kinda cringey, but at the same time we’re not doing it to be funny. Or at least that’s not the primary motivation. And these collection of songs is special to us, because it represents our love for heavy metal for rock and roll and for music. And I think you can be a bit on the nose with that kind of context…it’s not just that we play doom heavy metal; we’re celebrating that kind of concept; that marriage of slow, low honest metal with everything from Celtic Frost to Iron Maiden – all these sounds that make us the same way, as we have these two sides on the album cover. The album cover represents that dichotomy. Everyone got two or more sides to them.
But it’s important for us to recognise the dark and the light. And together they make us together, whole. That came out to be a lot more poetic that I meant to (chuckles)…it’s really about celebrating our fans and what music means to us, and also celebrating the next chapter of Khemmis with Nuclear Blast records. And it’s kind of a send off for 20 Bucks Spin (the record label for Khemmis’ first 3 albums), and Dave (Otero, the main person behind 20 Bucks Spin). I cannot say enough good stuff about him; he took a chance with us and put out Absolution, and in many ways he’s one of my favourite people and in many ways this album is for him…and in some ways it is a love letter to him for his influence and guidance and everything he has done for us.
Sheldon: Doom Heavy Metal consists of three live tracks, each from the first three Albums. Is this latest release also a “greatest hits”?
Ben: “Bereaved” from Absolution is the first song we wrote that really sounds like Khemmis, and has some of the sounds that we want to hone in. “Bloodletting” and “Three Gates” are more up tempo, aggressive songs. The live tracks representing the doom and the heavy metal side. And in picking the live tracks, we want to give people a snapshot of what it is like to see us live, because we do cover a wide range of an emotional gamut; we got the slow and emotional stuff. We got the faster and darker stuff, and as much as the live recording can hold us over until you see us live, we want to make sure that it’s the best representation of us; energy and the authenticity that we talk about. And I think passion is really important for us because we take being onstage seriously. It’s very sacred to us – whether we’re doing for fifty fans or five thousand fans. We try to put on the best performance every single time. And I really do feel that these recordings convey that essence, or at least we can get people extra interested until Covid 19 is over.
Sheldon: I notice that the songs are pretty epic, goes on for ten or so minutes. Is it due to the complexities of the lyrics and message?
Ben: Yeah, we always try to make songs as long as they need to be, to feel complete. “Hunted” (from the album Hunted) is thirteen and a half minutes. And initially the version was sixteen and a half minutes, but we trimmed it down. And that’s how long it needed to be lyrically, to tell that story. But we don’t generally write the lyrics until we got all the music in place. Maybe it needs to be in an intense journey. It could be a short journey but it needs to take you somewhere. And we’ve always tried to be honest in writing the songs with each other and if we feel that something is not getting explored enough, we’ve kind of get that idea and beat it to the ground, and so we can have a song like “Hunted” that’s thirteen and a half minutes long and then there’s “Isolation that’s just four and a half minutes long because in both cases we feel that they need to be as long as they needed to be.
Sheldon: Speaking of lyrics are you much into metaphors and ambiguity? Perhaps it is a rhetorical question (chuckles)
Ben: (Chuckle) Yeah.
Sheldon: And again on the lyric writing, do you find it is easier to write for growls or clean lyrics?
Ben: I do all the harsh vocals, and Phil does the clean vocals, and starting with Desolation we’ve been collaborating on all the lyrics, and I really don’t know if it is easier one way or the other, because we both have different sorts of constraints of voices of what we can or can’t do, and how fast we can or can’t sing. If anything, the way we approach of thinking which voices to use, as another layer of paint on canvas, that as we sort of set everything up in the musical composition of the song…the lyrics and vocals need to complete the picture. But I don’t know if it’s easier to write lyrics for one voice or the other. It may be a challenge, not necessarily harder, to write the lyrics that strike that balance between being an honest reflection of the story we’re telling but also ambiguous enough because you don’t want us to be saying, ‘this is reason I’m sad’, because we want something that you can relate to, maybe because you haven’t been through that specific thing. So you want to strike that balance of making it just ambiguous enough for you to be universally appealing, while telling and sharing something important…instead of a bunch of empty metaphors – and I think that is the challenge of lyrics writing in this band.
Sheldon: When’s your next studio album, and when will you be touring in Australia?
Ben: Well if everything goes according to plan and everything goes back to normal -whatever that means – we’re planning to be back in the studio at the end of December and we will record it through all of January with Dave Otero who have produced all of our albums. And we’ll see how that goes (chuckles). But on one hand there’ll not be any touring this year, and on the other hand we might not even be allowed to leave the house again. And finger crossed that we might be able to stick with that schedule. And people can look forward to our debut album with Nuclear Blast probably early summer next year (June 2021)…but could be sooner, or maybe earlier.
And as coming to Australia – oh my god – I want to do that so badly, like man, I cannot tell you how badly I want to go to Australia. It sounds so amazing. I have friends in Blood Temptation who did some dates around Australia and New Zealand, and our friends from Primitive Man have been down there. And we’re looking forward to come down there and I do not know anything about Australia so that’d be super awesome. But I do know there is a koala reserve where all the metal bands go to, so I’ll definitely do that and I do want to meet at koala really bad (chuckles).
Sheldon: Well I have been in Australia for over 30 years and I have only touched a koala once.
Ben: (chuckles) Well it is like a tourist thing, but also the only bears that we have here are the ones that will kill you (chuckles).
Sheldon: (Chuckles) Ben, speaking of killing, what ever you do, do not inject yourself with the disinfectant.
Ben: (chuckle) Oh my god absolutely, I’ll make sure that I will not do that!
Sheldon: Mate, you’re such a good sport, and it was so great talking to you. I wish you all the best. And I hope to see Khemmis soon.
Ben: Thank you so much my friend. And I really enjoyed this conversation. Take care, stay safe and I’ll see you when we make it down in Australia.