Khemmis Goes From “Hunted” To Hunter And Finds “Desolation”
With the release of Hunted in late 2016, Khemmis emerged as a new leading light in an already potent Denver scene. The sophomore album received some of the highest critical acclaim possible for a metal band — it was the number 1 album of the year according to Decibel Magazine and Metal Injection (our own Chris Rowella and Tom Campagna also rated it highly) — but it garnered mainstream attention as the number 11 metal album of the year according to Rolling Stone.
It’s a tough act to top, but Khemmis did just that with Desolation.
The album continues the evolution of the band from doom merchants on 2015’s Absolution debut to a more straightforward, straight-ahead metal band in the tradition of the genre’s cornerstone artists. Guitarists Phil Pendergast and Ben Hutcherson approximate the twin guitar attack of Iron Maiden, updated for a new generation of metalheads; Pendergast in particular delivers his strongest vocal performance to date.
The six tracks are steeped in epic metallic grandeur, though there’s nothing retro about it; rather, this is what traditional metal sounds like when born in an era where bands proffering abrasive death metal and atmospheric black metal are Khemmis’ peers. Desolation is informed by these surroundings in subtle ways — Hutcherson’s gruff growl on “Maw of Time,” the melodic ambience of “Bloodletting” – and a closing salvo “From Ruin” that is nine and a half minutes of doom metal perfection that harks back to not only their own roots but the origins of metal as we know it.
Phil Pendergast called into Invisible Oranges while driving home from work (he laughed over the Bluetooth connection “I’m done with my degree now. I’m a doctor — woo!”) to discuss the pressure of following up Hunted, the unique arrangement they made with Nuclear Blast while still staying on 20 Buck Spin, whether it’s fair to call Khemmis a doom metal band at this point and who that wizard on all their album covers is.
You have a unique deal where longtime label 20 Buck Spin is releasing the album in America but Nuclear Blast is handling it in the rest of the world. How did that come about?
I think that Monte Connor from Nuclear Blast had been talking to our producer Dave Otero about us at least since we were recording Hunted. Then when we played in New York for the first time in January of last year, he came out to the show, hung out with us the whole night and was really cool. We just kind of shot the shit and we really liked him like as a person. He came back a couple of weeks later and laid out what he thought was a cool deal for us and we thought it was a great idea.
We have loved working with Dave [Adelson] from 20 Buck Spin in every way since we started working with them after we had recorded Absolution and were searching around for a record label. Dave is super easy to work with, a really nice guy. It’s nice to work with a record label that’s only one person [who] does everything because you can get his ear really easily and talk about anything that you need to talk about. There’s a lot of appeal to staying with someone like that and the deals that he had given us had been really fair and let us make the record that we wanted and needed to make.
The truth is we still had Desolation under contract with 20 Buck Spin, so the licensing deal with Nuclear Blast is a plus that allowed us to expand our reach without breaking contract with 20 Buck Spin to release it to the parts of the world [where] they have a really good distribution network.
We have the distribution on the part of Nuclear Blast and their PR machine as well as having Dave’s attention to detail and help with record layout and his pretty formidable ability to get our record in the hands of any independent record store in the country that cares about it. It’s kind of the best of both worlds for us. We’re really happy with the situation right now.
When you were recording Desolation did you know that Nuclear Blast would be involved?
We knew that we were going to be putting out the album with them doing the licensing for the rest of the world, I think before we even had anything written for it. I would say it didn’t really affect the way we approached anything. We knew the kind of record we wanted to make and if anything through the touring that we have been doing recently, we learned that we want to write bigger-sounding songs that play well to a bigger stage. That’s the kind of places where we’re going to be playing from now on. We want it to be suited to playing a large venue and it being a little bit more bombastic.
Iron Maiden partially sounds the way they do because they’ve been playing giant stadiums their entire life. We would like to be playing some big venues. If anything influenced the direction that we took on this album it was wanting to write a more complex record and trying to write something that’s sounded bigger that we can play to a bigger audience. I don’t think the licensing deal had anything to do with that.
Vocals seem a lot stronger on the new album despite there being less harsh vocals this time out. Was that a point of emphasis?
We wanted it to be more memorable and just better, to really be that element that you can just grab onto. To do that it made more sense to emphasize the melodic vocals, but also to make Ben’s passages be catchy as well. For instance, in “Maw of Time,” a lot of the hooks in that song are driven by the heavy vocals.
Whereas with “The Seer,” I spent a lot of time doing the harmonies for that to try and achieve an eerie pretty evil sound – pretty but evil, but also pretty evil. I definitely think about stuff like that, the impression that a sound or a harmony will have on the listener, and sometimes forego doing harmonies or do different harmonies than what you would expect to accomplish that.
I think put lot more thought into the vocals on this record than I ever have before and I’m a better singer now than I ever was before. I just started singing when we started this band, so naturally I’m going to be getting better at it as we go. There was also kind of discovering how I wanted my voice to sound on the record for the first time. We used a different microphone and we spent a lot more time getting the vocal tone that I wanted on the album, which is sort of thicker, more reflective of the fact that I actually have a somewhat deeper voice than you might expect from listening to the first and second album.
One of the main things that I was really focused on was that I wanted to deliver a) the best vocal performance that I had gotten, b) the best vocal tone that I had, c) the most grandiose vocal performance so there’s a lot higher notes and stuff and d) just more memorable songwriting generally which includes vocals as well.
Encyclopedia Metallum says that your lyrical themes are “loss, death, grief and remorse.”
Yeah, that sounds pretty accurate, actually.
What I find interesting is how the lyrics are a little ambiguous. For example, “Bloodletting” could easily fit into one of your fantasy-themed album covers but it can also be a commentary on what our country is going through politically and socially right now.
That’s exactly what I was going for with that song so I’m glad you pick up on or that.
I get really disappointed when people see the album cover and listen to the music kind of personally and think that everything is fantasy-based. I get really bummed out when I listen to most bands that have just fantasy lyrics. To me, vocals are supposed to communicate the soul and the emotional heft of the human existence, whatever emotions that may be. To me it’s really important that if I’m going to deliver a good vocal performance that I have lyrics that I believe in what I’m saying and that mean something to me. I get kind of bummed out when people don’t pay attention to lyrics even though I know it’s not that common in metal for lyrics to be something worth paying attention to.
I think generally I want every song to tell a story that progresses through some kind of a theme. I try to have things wrapped up in just enough of a metaphor that it’s not necessarily clear what my exact personal story is I’m trying to communicate, but that people can kind of read into it what their experience might be, the thrill of it. Some people can choose to see it as more fantastical.
I’m glad it comes off that way. I would say that it’s a pretty honest expression of my feelings about the political climate and my general discontentment with literally everything involved with politics and people’s inability to see the commonalities between each other. It just leaves everyone feeling more alone and more angry than we should be. It’s going to ruin the human race faster than anything else.
Those feelings are what are supposed to be represented in that song. I don’t have any problem being a little more direct about my intentions there.
You brought up Iron Maiden. I feel a massive NWOBHM feel on this record. I don’t know if you are actively rebelling against the doom label, but it’s certainly the least doomy record Khemmis has done.
Yeah, you’re right. We are kind of sick of being labeled doom metal. On the first record I think it’s totally appropriate. One of the first things that we talked about with the band was that we wanted to have a lot of the songwriting be wrapped up dueling leads that we thought of as being like Iron Maiden, Thin Lizzy or At The Gates inspired.
The problem is that you don’t have a lot of control over how something gets marketed. I think with the first album, I have no problem with people considering it to be doom metal, but I do have a problem with a band being labeled down to a certain subgenre when the music they’re making doesn’t really reflect that that’s where they’re coming from.
With Hunted I thought that we stepped outside of the doom label. Other than the slower tempos and sort of depressive songwriting generally, there’s not a whole lot musically that sounds like Black Sabbath or Candlemass on that record.
With this record, even more so than ever before, we really wanted to take control of that process, trying to assert ourselves as just being a capital letter ‘HEAVY METAL’ band more than anything else.
There’s just as many doomy parts on this record as there are Iron Maiden or Mercyful Fate parts as there are random death metal riffs and all of those things can coexist in a way that we think is cohesive. I think that it’s kind of inappropriate to label it as one subgenre; really what we’re shooting for is something like High On Fire did. They started off as a very doomy, sludgy band on the first record. By the time they got to Blessed Black Wings, it was pretty hard to consider them as anything other than a heavy metal band, full stop.
That’s what we’re shooting for, just for the music to be appreciated for what it is without people having to think, “oh shit, this is doom metal?” We don’t want people thinking that. It’s not like a label that fits what we’re doing anymore because I think it probably scares away more people [who] might be into us than it helps us have an identity that people can understand what we’re doing.
So yeah, I think a part of it is like that, a sort of active rebellion against that because it’s a little bit frustrating and limiting. Any genre tag would be limiting and we’re just trying to create something that we think is cool and that rocks and I don’t think a lot of people associate doom metal with being something that rocks and is kind of fun sometimes.
Those who do appreciate the doomy aspect of the band can just wait for “From Ruin.” It’s nine and a half minutes, the last song on the record and I couldn’t imagine it being anything but the last song on the record.
Yeah, we acknowledge where they’re coming from and where early fans might have really gotten into us because of that. It is still appropriate to return to a pretty traditional doom metal sound to close out the album. Our motivation was, okay, if we’re going to write a really doomy song for this record, we want it to be the best damn doomy song that we’ve ever written. That was kind of our goal with that and I at least feel like it might be the best song that we’ve written.
I’m happy to say that I think that’s a doom song, but just because one song is one way or another doesn’t mean that an album or a band has to be considered that way. I think that’s my greater point, it’s so limiting when people think about things as just being one thing. A lot of albums have a lot of variety. This one I think certainly does and it gets lost sometimes when people are reductive in their thinking.
What is interesting to me anyway is that Sabbath invented doom metal but also metal, period, so even they get conflated. Plus not everything they did was doomy. “Symptom of the Universe” was not doom. “Supernaut” was proto-thrash. Even Dio-era had “Neon Knights.”
Yeah, for sure. I don’t know if this is something the other guys in the band share or not, but trying to think about what we’re doing as being like if we could step back into the time period when there was no differentiation in terms of how people thought about Black Sabbath and Judas Priest. They were both full-stop ‘metal bands’ that sound so different. [We’re] somewhere in between the two with the perspective of having heard death metal in 2018. That’s how I imagine us fitting in historically.
It’s kind of an amalgamation of everything. The shit that Judas Priest was doing back then was super brave and adventurous. We’d like to have the same kind of spirit of adventure and willingness to take risks and not be afraid of alienating a fan base that we have because they have expectations that we’re going to do this thing or this thing.
That’s something that we tried to assert by having “Isolation” be the lead-off single. It’s maybe the most different thing from anything else we have done. We hoped that people would appreciate hearing something that was unexpected.
You have the same wizard on all three of your album covers. It reminds me of Iron Maiden’s Eddie. Does he have a name?
Yeah. His name is Leonard. Leonard the Beer Wizard. He has absolutely always been intentionally our Eddie and he will always feature on our album art in some way. We fucking love that shit and also really love the bad-ass album covers that you would get back then. There’s something missing in modern music and nobody really has a mascot anymore on their album art.
Sam [Turner] the guy that does our album art had drawn that for a tee-shirt that we had when we first started the band and we were like, this is it! This is our fucking guy! Only recently did we decide that he has a name and it’s Leonard. But yeah, it’s definitely intentionally an homage to Eddie.
I don’t think that I’ve read that anywhere.
Yeah, you might be breaking the story on this.
That’s fantastic. I love breaking news. Another thing that interested me was how on Absolution the female character seems to be an apprentice whereas on Desolation she seems to be in charge now.
Yeah. Going back to your previous insights about there being maybe some subtle political commentary, I think you can imagine the intention of that transformation.
I think the song “Maw of Time,” the lyrics for that are pretty illustrative of the feelings motivating that. I see that song as a spiritual successor to “Serpentine” from our first album in terms of the subject matter.
The closest women in my life have always been women who have had to deal with so much bullshit. There’s so much more rape and sexual assault that goes on that women have to suffer that anybody knows and it’s about time that something is getting done about it. I think that like I’ve always had a lot of anger about that. Probably the two angriest songs lyrically that we’ve had are “Serpentine” and “Maw of Time” and they’re both inspired by the same idea and I think that made its way into the album cover.
You mentioned the band was going to make touring more of a priority. You toured a lot more for the last album than ever before. I got the feeling it was more than you ever anticipated. You and Ben are in academics, Zach is a brewmaster — how are you able to increase your touring given your responsibilities back home?
That’s a good question because we haven’t necessarily figured it out either. As long as we’re thoughtful about it, it’s really pretty easy for us to put together a string of three dates where we’ll fly out and do small run. What we’ve done all along is short little touring opportunities where we get to play one or two high profile shows like a festival and build our touring around those opportunities to maximize what we have available because it is kind of a struggle.
Moving forward, we’re going to continue to do that. But I hope with more exposure with the new album in other parts of the world we’ll have more opportunities to keep doing that. At the same time, we had a really good time on this month-long [Decibel Magazine] tour that we did earlier and we still want to be able to do stuff like that as much as we’re able as well. So we really just have to play it by ear and be really careful about scheduling, just trying to do the best we can to get out there and see people on the road. It’s definitely an important part of being a band these days when you don’t make any money from actually the music or anything. It’s also one of the most fun aspects of being in a band and we love performing live. So we’re gonna make it happen regardless of the sacrifices that we probably have to make to do that.
I don’t know if you’re going to see us doing a bunch of six week tours that most bands will do in Europe or across the US and Canada. We’re going to make whatever happens that we can make happen and we’re going to be selective in the opportunities that we take to play to the most people possible with the [smallest] impact on our families and our professional lives.
There’s this romantic notion of bands jumping in vans and never returning home for six, seven, eight months out of the year. There’s no shortage of bands that are doing that as we speak. Do you regret that is not something that is ever going to happen for Khemmis most likely? Or are you more happy of the fact that you’ve got a stable, solid grounding that doesn’t rely on you having to sell tee shirts to in order to get to the next town?
You know man, I don’t regret it. I think that everything is the way it is for a reason and sometimes you can get opportunities by not taking opportunities. A concrete example of this would be that if we toured extensively after we made Absolution, which we would have done if we were twenty years old when that record came out, we would have taken a six-week tour with Amon Amarth, which we were offered and which would have been amazing. By doing that we would not have booked studio time for us to go and record Hunted on a pretty tight time schedule. And if we hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t have written Hunted during the same period of time that we wrote it. I honestly believe that albums are very much a snapshot of a band at a given point in time, where they are with their influences and their thoughts and emotions and their personal relationships with each other. I don’t think Hunted would have been the same record it was. It wouldn’t have been album of the year in Decibel magazine. It wouldn’t have gotten in Rolling Stone’s top fifteen metal albums of the year.
Who knows if we would have the opportunities that we have today, if anybody would give a shit about Desolation, if we had taken that tour, recorded Hunted and it turned out to be a different record that people didn’t get into. So [we have] no regrets about any of that. I think that we’re just going to keep doing the things we think we can do. If we get amazing opportunities we’re going to make sacrifices to make them happen like we did with this festival tour. If Metallica wants us to come and have us open for them, or even Ghost would be fine too, we would do it.
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The time seems right for Khemmis: It’s your third album, the first with Nuclear Blast involved, there’s a huge buzz off the last album and Desolation is the best album you have done. The band has had tons of critical success; have you wrapped your head around what it will be like to garner commercial success?
I really don’t know. I think that there’s this odd thing where Hunted was pretty universally praised critically, but we’re still a really unknown band. If you take something like Facebook likes as a measure of how big a band is, we have 16,000 fans. That’s a lot but it’s not nearly as many as a lot of other bands that don’t release an album that people think is the best album of the year. I don’t know that I think it was the best album of the year, but you would think that those two things would correspond more closely, critical and commercial success, or at least that’s how I always imagined.
So I really don’t know what leads to [commercial] success or what it looks like in metal. I really don’t care if we’re not commercially successful. To me it’s more important that the people who do hear the album like it, think that it’s cool and think that it’s different.
Maybe my grand ambition would be that we go down as being kind of a cult classic now and that 25 years from now, people realize that we were an important link in the history of metal and did something that was inspirational for other people or something like that.
I don’t know if that will happen or not — or if we deserve that. But that’s more along what I would hope would happen than some kind of commercial success, but I don’t know what that would look like. I don’t know how much more money people [who] are in a band that has “made it” are getting, I have no idea about any of that shit.
I’m would be super stoked to get a Vans endorsement or something so that I could not have to pay for the exact same pair of shoes that I have worn since I was in middle school — these black high-top Vans. If I could get some shit like that for free I would be super excited. If that’s what commercial success is then I anxiously hope that we can attain that. That would be super badass.
What if I got like fucking Levi’s to give us some jeans and Vans to give me some shoes? I wouldn’t have to buy clothes anymore! That would be real cool. I think that’s maybe the extent of how I can imagine commercial success.