Photo: Jason Sinn
“It’s about what quarantine and isolation both required of us and afforded us, taking us out of the rat race, taking stock of things and realising what’s important to us,” says Ben Hutcherson, guitarist and vocalist with Denver’s Khemmis, describing how the global pandemic impacted the writing of the band’s latest album Deceiver. “We jammed a couple times at the end of 2019,” Hutcherson explains. “But as far as the heart of the album goes, we were smack dab in the middle of quarantine.” One way or another, when speaking to any band recently, the Covid pandemic inevitably crops up as a point of conversation. It’s affected us all in countless ways and for the members of Khemmis the lockdowns brought about a period of self reflection, and for Hutcherson, a time to process and treat his mental health issues. But changes were afoot in the Khemmis camp months before Covid-19 made its presence known, as December 2019 saw the departure of the band’s bassist and founding member Dan Beiers, with the remaining members subsequently choosing to continue as a three piece. Riffs and ideas for album number four were already beginning to emerge around this time too and just as the world was plunged into lockdown, April 2020 saw the band release their acclaimed Doomed Heavy Metal EP, featuring some sought after deep cuts and a blistering cover of Dio’s ‘Rainbow In The Dark’. Shortly before the release of Deceiver, Astral Noize spoke to Hutcherson via Zoom to discuss the spirituality of art and its importance in society, as well as mental health during lockdown and how he rediscovered the joy of playing metal.
Just before lockdown, you released the Doomed Heavy Metal EP featuring some rarer tracks and most notably a fantastic cover of Dio’s ‘Rainbow In The Dark’. How did it feel to cover such an iconic song?
I have a fun little story for you about the Dio one. So we recorded the EP and we told Monty Connor at Nuclear Blast, who’s our AR guy, that we wanted to do a video for ‘Rainbow In The Dark’. We wanted to record the Denver show and do a live video and he’s like “ok, but we gotta get the proper license”. When you do these things, estates or artists can just tell you no. He was like, “I know Wendy Dio, I’ll reach out”. So we were on tour and Monty got back to us and said Wendy has given us her personal blessing to release the song and video and we were just blown away. I mean, we would have been happy if it was just a piece of paper from a lawyer that said it’s fine, but that it was literally Wendy Dio that gave us her personal blessing made that song so much more special to us.
Like all good covers, you made it your own without taking away from the song’s essence, you sound like you had a good time making it.
It was fun. Whenever we’ve covered songs and dug them out and reconstructed them, we’ve always managed to put our own spin on them. With ‘Rainbow In The Dark’ it was really important to us to make it clear how much of a love letter to Dio and to heavy metal it was. We’re a band that can be pretty dark, so it was important to remind ourselves there has to be that fun element too, that joyous element. Anything that takes itself too seriously can run the risk of losing some of its magic and what better way to describe Dio than magic.
Has the departure of bassist Dan Beiers had any effect on the dynamics of the band and how you write?
Not really, no. We’re a guitar driven band, we’re not incorporating avant-garde instrumentation or anything. It didn’t really change one way or another, other than to say that the three of us were all on the same page in a way we haven’t been in a long time. That’s the difference more than anything, in that even though I’ve always thought of these guys as my brothers I’ve never felt that to be as true as I do today, I’ve never felt it as completely. And I think this even came across in the writing. We were writing remotely until we were able to leave our homes and I think to a degree everyone was a little bit nervous. We’d had all these personal revelations, we’d talked over phone or Zoom or whatever but to be in the same room together is really where the rubber meets the road. The moment we flipped those amps on we were on the same wavelength and that makes it very easy to do this work.
Khemmis sounds like it’s in a healthy place right now.
Yeah, but it takes work, I wish I could be all like we’re up here on the mountain top and how good it is from this enlightened place, but it takes work everyday to continue on with that journey. It’s not strictly linear, there’s bad days and bad weeks, but absolutely the band is healthier and more fun than ever before. I mentioned this before in regard to the Dio cover but I think that it’s something that we as heavy metal fans and musicians often sort of roll our eyes at, that the moment someone says ‘fun’ it implies immaturity or a sort of laziness about it. You can have fun and work hard. Rediscovering how to have fun doing this whilst also taking it seriously has been a true joy.
You mentioned that ideas for Deceiver began to form in late 2019, when did the writing for the album start to come together?
It was probably the end of May 2020 when it started to come together. We didn’t realise it at the end of 2019 but there was a lot of work that had to get done internally for us as people and as a band. I think that’s why a lot of the initial jamming and writing from 2019 seemed particularly uninspired to us. It didn’t feel we were getting any traction, our hearts weren’t in it. It took a while for us to come around and rediscover what it is about this band that’s important, rediscover what it means to us as individuals and what it means for us to make music that moves other people. I think there’s this thing that can happen with any creative endeavour, things become so routine whether we like it or not, things become business-like and you end up going through the motions. As much as we all like to say art exists for art’s sake, that doesn’t keep a fucking roof over my head; idealism doesn’t keep the lights on. So seeing that we had shifted so far from the kind of ethos of the band, of being honest to ourselves and this idea of creating art that we believe in, reconnecting with that human element and rediscovering ourselves as humans was important. Like, I’m a person with hopes and dreams, a dog, a cat and a wife who’s much cooler than I am. I had to relearn how to live in my own skin before I tried to start to mine my own sorrow and pain for the purpose of art.
How does the creative process work in Khemmis?
Because we are a guitar-driven band, all of our songs start with riffs. For several years now our process has been Phil [Pendergast, vocalist/guitarist] and I will have this backlog of riffs, and we’ll come together and often Zach [Coleman, drums] will be our creative filter. As he didn’t write any of the riffs he can hear them much more objectively. The first creative starting point for Deciever I guess was when Zack heard the opening riff of ‘Avernal Gate’, one I’d written and was pretty excited about. I was worried maybe it was too fast, too Swedish, too whatever but Zack said this is the starting point, he said I think we should try to hone in on this feeling and that really was the guiding light for a lot of it. We stopped questioning “is this doomy enough, is this Khemmis enough” and trusted that if we love it then that will come across to the listener.
In the press release for Deceiver, Phil mentioned that this album is “of it’s time”. What do you think he meant by that, and do you agree?
Yes, with the caveat of saying this album was born of the pandemic, but it’s not about that. A lot of the realisations I’ve had personally over the past nearly two years, those are not epiphanies that couldn’t have been made some other way, but the fact that I was literally forced to sit down and live with myself in a way that I haven’t at any other point of my life meant I wound up getting the mental health care I needed, getting psychiatric care, a mental health diagnosis, and starting medication. It may have happened through other avenues, but because of quarantine and the pandemic, I had to address those things. I’m not going to speak about the specific things Zach and Phil had to confront but all of us had to say “why did I wind up here and what is it that I’m supposed to be doing”. I think these are questions that transcend a global pandemic and any sort of moment in a given person’s life. I think also to Phil’s point there’s this tendency in music journalism, and I think fans do this as well, we interpret art through the lens of when it came out. And a lot of people who aren’t musicians forget that a band started writing that album a year and half a ago. So like, just because you put an album out in an election year doesn’t mean it’s an election album. But this time people are going to be like “oh, did this happen during the pandemic?” and we’ll be “you’re goddamn right it did”.
As you were attending to your mental health needs, to what extent did writing the music for Deceiver become part of the healing process, was it important to have that creative outlet?
There’s no substitute for actual medical help, to be sure, but once I had gotten psychiatric help and I was on medication, the one measure of regaining a sense of balance in my life was rediscovering the joy of playing guitar. It didn’t feel like a task, but a gift. I started to rebuild that emotional and spiritual baseline that writing and playing music was. I mean, we could talk about this for hours, I can be quite high minded about art when a situation calls for it. I am a true believer in the necessity of art for human society to be productive and happy. I think a symptom of a sick society, of our society, is the lack of worth we put on art in general. It’s only considered valuable in its monetary value, but art historically has done so much more than that, it’s shown us the worst we can be, how far we can fall and it gives us something to aspire to, it gives us a mirror to any given societal moment. For the artist it’s a chance to exist in a holistic way that other normal parts of the world can’t provide. For some, it’s sports, for athletes and fans, it can be their church, for others it literally is church. For me music is my church, specifically creating music with people I love and performing it in front of people. We made our return to the stage at Psycho Las Vegas – if you were to take the way someone describes being filled by the holy spirit and take the way I was speaking when we got off the stage, swap out the word ‘God’ for ‘crowd’ and it’s damn near the same thing. Music absolutely has done that for me throughout my life, but especially in the past two years. The times music has literally saved my life are too many to count. It sounds obvious to say but without music we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Given all three members of Khemmis had personal issues to deal with prior to the writing of Deceiver, to what extent did those difficulties influence how the lyrics were composed?
It was important to us to not write about the pandemic. An analogy would be when comedians do very topical humour, they have to come up with new jokes each week, but if you can make it more human, pull back on the specificity and make it more universal you don’t alienate everyone who didn’t experience it the exact same way you did. I think we were especially conscious of that this time writing these lyrics. So to find that balance, not running away from what created the environment those songs were written in but to not be over specific that it sounds like we’re just recounting the news. I’ve got to give a lot of credit to Phil here. Over the years we’ve become more and more collaborative with the lyrics, but with this album he’d written out a short story for each song, like a vignette, basically saying this is where my head’s at. We never write words for the other one to sing, we’ll edit one another but there were a number of points where he had told me very explicitly “this is what I’m trying to make sense of in my life, this is the trauma I’m working through and trying to reconcile”. So I know that it would be extremely contrived if I tried to write from his headspace and undermine what he was talking about. But also, maybe he’s coming from a place talking about intergenerational trauma, I may not have had the same struggle but maybe some of my struggles with sobriety looks like that. So we were finding ways to use metaphor so the lyrics don’t read like two radically different experiences and there were several moments where we couldn’t even remember who’d written what line, it had blended that well. We were really proud of that.
You’ve long since transcended the doom tag you’re often labelled as and Deceiver sees you paint from an even broader pallet musically? Was this a conscious decision?
What you’re hearing is the sound of a band that is confident in having a diverse array of influences and doesn’t feel the need to second guess itself. I don’t think we had ever said explicitly in the past “oh that’s too black metal or too classic rock”, but I’m sure on some level there was that critical voice saying “You gotta paint it between the lines”. We’re coming up to ten years as a band, we tour more than ever, we’ve grown into not necessarily what Khemmis sounds like but what Khemmis means. I think a lot of that thinking led to taking the restraints off of ourselves. I mean, ‘Avernal Gate’ ends with blastbeats; yes they’re slow blastbeats but if you’d asked me several years ago whether there would be blastbeats on a Khemmis record I’d say probably no. But now, there’s no telling where we’ll go as long as we believe it’s the right move.
I also want to thank you for your comment on being labelled a doom band, it’s certainly a thing we push back on, because all the tropes associated with doom, whether it’s smoking weed all the time, playing the same riff for fifteen minutes or whatever, the caricature of the doom metal burnout, aren’t what Khemmis are about. I’d also say, out of all the types of metal, doom is probably the type of metal we listen to the least. That said, my two favourite metal acts are Neurosis and YOB, so take that for what you will, but I don’t listen to a whole load of doom bands. But the Sweedeath influence is there. I discovered At The Gates when I was nineteen years old, so they’ve been part of my musical DNA, same as with second wave black metal. The other part of this is when you’ve been listening to so many different things for so long, your voice, that thing we always want to find, I think that happens when you stop trying to carve it out for yourself and you just let the things come out. Hopefully it sounds like you and as long as it’s good that’s all the matters. I think for me the barometer is, does the song move you, did the song take you on a journey and if so, then I did the work and that’s what matters to me.
We’ve had a lot of down time during the pandemic, what music were you listening to and were there any new bands you discovered in this time?
I always said when I got older I wouldn’t be one of those guys who stood there shaking his fingers at the young kids, but increasingly I find myself being that guy *laughs*. There’s something to be said for going back to the music you find comforting especially in difficult and upsetting times. In the past two years I’ve listened to more John Prine than I ever have before. I loved him since I was a kid, but his music has been keeping me afloat during the hard times and bringing me a lot of joy during the good times. But, I’m trying to make a conscious effort to not be the stodgy get-off-my-lawn guy. Some of these bands aren’t necessarily new bands, just bands with new releases but Spectral Wound just put out one of my favourite black metal albums in a very long time. Wake from Canada, great band, they’re doing stuff with extreme music that is just so… it’s amazing. Teeth form Southern California. I love Gorguts and Teeth have taken that sound and made it into, I don’t know, it sounds like you’re being eaten by a machine. I gotta give some love to the Denver scene too, our cup overfloweth here. Just in the past couple of years, releases from Primitive Man, Of Feather And Bone, Blood Incantation, Dreadnought, Spectral Force, Black Curse, Denver is constantly cranking things out. So I do try to find the time for it, there’s just so much music coming out. I remember being nineteen, going off to college, having internet access for the first time and just literally that’s all I did, absorb music. I used to do a lot of listening in my car, but I don’t have a whole load of places to go right now and my neighbours and my wife would probably be very concerned if I just went and sat in the car for five hours *laughs*.
Finally, do you have any touring plans in the pipeline, or with the ongoing travel difficulties, is it all a wait and see game?
It’s both. We have some stuff lined up, we’re playing St Vitus in New York in November, western states in January. We’re slated to come over to the UK for Desertfest at the end of April in London, hopefully that can happen, talk about wait and see *laughs*. We’re trying to strike the balance between being careful and not over committing to things but also realising we need to play on stage for our own sanity, wellbeing and spirituality and I think fans need it more than ever. People have felt so isolated alone, and taken for granted by larger institutions. The promise of heavy metal, I guess music in general, but heavy metal specifically has always had the potential for it to be a place of safety and kindness and love. It certainly doesn’t always live up to that, but that’s its potential. And hopefully we can do the work to make it reach that potential, even if it’s just a tiny little bit. And maybe for an hour a night, we connect with something a bit more meaningful than just slogging away at the office.
Deceiver is out 19th November on Nuclear Blast. Order here.
Words: Adam Pegg