Interview: Ben Hutcherson of Khemmis
Interviewer: Tim Finch
Last week Khemmis released a very special E.P. 'Doomed Heavy Metal', featuring previously rare records, a very special cover song and a few live tracks. We catch up with guitarist and vocalist Ben to get his take on the release and how the band are getting on with life right now.
The Razor’s Edge: So, how are you guys coping with coronavirus?
Ben: You know we are doing are best, my wife and I were talking about this last night, it all feels a new kind of surreal where we've been in lockdown for so long that I can't remember what life was like before.
The Razor’s Edge: I'd agree with that, it's been five weeks for us here in the UK and it seems like a lifetime.
Ben: I think we went into lockdown as a State in March 18th or something, but when other states started shutting down the week before we just said we weren't going to chance it and started isolating ourselves. Let me tell you it was a great way to celebrate my birthday on March 12th.
To be fair I'd rather hang out with my wife than most people anyway, but it would have been nice to go out to dinner or something, but we stayed home and stayed safe.
The Razor’s Edge: How much of your plans has the virus affected? You had been due to play here in the UK at Desertfest in few weeks.
Ben: We should be over in Europe right now, not being there sucks. Right now everything through to the end of August, September is definitely off. We are assuming at this point that we won't be doing anything for the rest of the year in terms of playing live. Hopefully everything returns to some kind of normal early next year.
The tour we are supposed to be on right now, we have rescheduled for next March. When we did that we thought that is so far out there is no way it won't happen. But now with reports of the possibility of a second wave in the winter and just the general lack of confidence in people staying inside and staying to themselves and let the medical professionals take care of this. Now I wonder if even next March is really that safe. We have our fingers crossed and we'll see what happens.
The Razor’s Edge: You’ve built up a sizeable following over in the US, but UK metal fans may not be as familiar with you. How would you best describe your sound?
Ben: Well I think that the title of our new release answers the question for you. [laughs] 'Doomed Heavy Metal'. We refer to ourselves as Doomed Heavy Metal, I don't even remember exactly who coined the phrase. Our friend Kim Kelly who was the metal editor at Noisey when she first reviewed us called 'Doomed Rock and Roll' which we liked and we updated it to 'Doomed Heavy Metal' because although we do play slow and low at times we try to channel a more diverse set of influences maybe than just your standard doom sound. At the same time the idea of doom as a kind of heavy metal that is very open to exploring the space between notes, to exploring emotional realities, we've always found that to very compelling. Even if our riffs are channeling Iron Maiden and Merciful Fate maybe a little old school death metal thrown in there. The aesthetic, the general approach is one that encompasses the feeling of doom.
The Razor’s Edge: You’ve received a lot of critical acclaim over the years, your second album 'Hunted' was #1 on Decibel Magazines albums of 2016. Quite an achievement, especially without a major label backing you at the time!
Ben: It's been an amazing experience for sure. We never expected anything to come of this band, which is not to say the aren't proud or excited about what we do, but I think anybody who gets into playing heavy music with dreams of stardom and becoming rich and famous is in for an unpleasant wake up call [laughs] when they see what the world of music is.
We started doing this band simply because we thought that we had to. We wanted to make the kind of music we wanted to hear and I think this idea resonates with a lot of creative people; the feeling that if you don't create that you aren't doing what you are supposed to be doing. That nothing else really provides that sense of purpose, that sense of existential satisfaction like doing the thing that helps you work through your part of the world. Helps you feel like you are contributing to the world and helps you feel connected to yourself and others.
So when it came time to put out that first record and especially when we came to put out 'Hunted' we didn't really have any expectations about what might happen and so we've been able to take every positive experience and really cherish it because we fully expected to be hanging around in Denver playing riffs. We couldn't in our wildest dreams have expected it to go the way that it has, from putting out our first record in 2015 to last year signing a world wide deal with Nuclear Blast Records. It's pretty amazing.
The Razor’s Edge: What's it like being on a major label now like Nuclear Blast?
Ben: I cannot say enough good stuff about Nuclear Blast. They co-released our last full length as well as our new mini album alongside 20 Buck Spin. 20 Buck Spin was our home for many years, Dave Adleson is a phenomenal human being running a great label, he taught us so much. But joining Nuclear Blast really has been a joy to work with so many people that are passionate about so many different kinds of heavy metal. It's impossible for us to talk about our relationship with heavy metal and not name twenty bands that are on Nuclear Blast or have released records on Nuclear Blast. So it really does feel like getting called up to the big leagues.
The Razor’s Edge: These days they are certainly the home to pretty much everyone you want to listen to. They are THE heavy metal label really.
Ben: It's funny because when we signed to Nuclear Blast people outside of metal it's hard to explain to them what we do. So being able to say "We are signed to Nuclear Blast" and they say "I don't know who that is" and being able to say "It's the label that has Rob Zombie". And thats the thing that people outside of the underground get. Or to be able to say this is the label that is home to Slayer and anyone that knows the least bit about heavy metal can say I understand I can connect with that. So it's been pretty awesome!
The Razor’s Edge: So let’s talk about your new E.P., ‘Doomed Heavy Metal’. Six songs including a cover, a couple of previously released rare tracks and three live tracks. What was the thinking behind releasing this E.P. at this time?
Ben: We put ourselves in the position of having some material that had not been widely released. 'Empty Throne' and 'A Conversation With Death' were previously on very limited physical releases. 'Empty Throne' being on a Decibel flexi disc so if you didn't subscribe to Decibel magazine in 2017 you've probably never heard that song. 'A Conversation with Death' was on a limited 7-inch split with our friends Spirit Adrift. We knew we wanted to put those out in a more traditional format. Then at the end of 2018 we recorded two nights here in Denver, we did a thing that we called "Two Nights of Doomed Heavy Metal" where we played a different set each night, the first night being a slow and low doom set and the second night the more up-tempo aggressive heavy metal set.
So we had all this live material recorded, we had these hard to find tracks and we found inspiration in ZZ Top's Fandango! which is a collection of rarities and live cuts. We all love that record, we all found inspiration in that record creatively. So when we were trying to figure out what to do these songs and put them together in a compelling way we really just wanted to make our version of Fandango!. That album is ZZ Top's love letter to blues and to rock and roll and to their fans and that is what we wanted to do, we wanted to celebrate our fans old and new and we wanted to put on display why we love heavy metal. That then informed our decision to cover Dio's 'Rainbow In The Dark', which is a classic song and has really affected a lot of people. Ronnie James Dio represents so much of why I love, what all of us love about heavy metal. The passion, the positivity, the willingness to be open and honest in what we are creating and when we came on to the idea to cover that song, we knew that would encapsulate the entire feeling that we wanted the release to have. We wanted the final release with 20 Buck Spin, the sort of end of our first era, to really feel like it represents the gratitude that we feel for all the success we've had so far.
The Razor’s Edge: You mention the ‘Rainbow In The Dark’ cover. If I might say, probably the best rendition of the song I have heard. Why chose that song and how did you approach covering it?
Ben: Thank you so much for saying that. It's a classic, a song that if you've ever listened to heavy metal you know that song. So that makes it fun to put your spin on but still try to retain some version of the original. You always want to strike some balance between paying tribute and putting your stamp on it. There have been lots of covers of lots of songs over the years that basically amount to karaoke right, its the exact same original with a different singer.. meh, who cares? So we wanted to make sure it sounded like a Khemmis song and to that end it helps that it's a pretty simple song, theres like two parts that just go back on forth. What makes it so legendary is the vocal performance and the guitar solo. So with that fairly simple song structure we were able to tweak things here and there, replace the keyboards with harmonised guitar lines, doubling the tempo behind the guitar solo, just little things here and there that made it a Khemmis song, whilst making it clear that we love Dio, we love what the song represents and we are paying tribute to him and this song.
The Razor’s Edge: Were there any new recording sessions for this E.P. or was everything taken from previous sessions?
Ben: 'Rainbow in the Dark' is new, we recorded that in August of last year not long after we got back from our US headline tour last summer. The rest of the stuff we did have lying around, but for that one we did go back to Flatline Audio to record with our long time producer Dave Otero, he also mixed the live tracks and has recorded everything we've done since 2015. He is our go to guy!
The Razor’s Edge: Talking about the two live shows that you recorded did you ever intend for a full live album to come out with that material?
Ben: We didn't exactly know what we were going to do with that live material. We talked about the idea of a full live album and I think we decided that as much as we love a lot of live albums that at this point in our career it's not the best use of that material. We liked the idea of this release representing multiple sides of the band and giving people that taste of what the live experience is like but at the same time recognising no matter how good a live recording is the band is better when you can actually experience them live.
Of course we had this thought when there was still the possibility of actually having concerts so we may have to wind up releasing more of the live material to tide people over. I think we may resist the idea of a full on live album further down the road. When you've got five or six albums under your belt you can really pull out some deep cuts and that's when the live album is most satisfying.
The Razor’s Edge: Your album artwork is always very unique. Where do the concepts come from?
Ben: The visual aspect has always been very import to us. For the studio albums we've always worked with Sam Turner who is a Denver artist that we know from having done other metal album covers, he also does the artwork for a brewery in town that Zach is a part owner of called True Brewing. We always liked the Molly Hatchet covers with the Frank Frazetta art because those album covers pop into your mind. As soon as I say Molly Hatchet you can see the cover of the album even if you can't remember any Molly Hatchet songs. The idea of that art being so iconic and telling a story at the same time, I think good album covers can and should do that. We've always tried to tell a story that is different to what we are singing about, I mean we have zero songs about wizards and dragons, but the idea of strife and the idea of victory or feeling defeated goes far beyond the fantasy realm and is defiantly part of everyones everyday life. So finding those connections between the story of the art and the story of the music has always been important to us.
For this release because it is a bit left of centre for us we went with our friend Cameron Hinojosa who has done art for us in the past. The art on this release is a reworked version of the two nights of the 'Doomed Heavy Metal' shows. As those two shows were intended to represent two sides of the band we wanted the art to highlight that dichotomy as well, the light and the dark. Our connection to Denver, to Colorado, the state, what this state means to us, the mountains and geography but also to the dark. The consistent presences of darkness in our lives in whatever form, whether it's actually the spectre of death or just the darker parts of life. I think Cameron knocked it out of the park with this, its some of my favourite art that we've had ever. He's just a phenomenal artist and everyone should check out his work, he's done some work for before The Sword too.
The Razor’s Edge: How would you describe a Khemmis live show to a fan who’s never seen you before?
Ben: I would say it's intense and that might surprise people given that a lot of our songs are relatively slow. Being on stage is sacred to us and something we take very seriously. The experience of sharing music with each other and the crowd is something that we cherish. When we go out on stage whether it's for 30 minutes or 90 minutes every time we are on stage we are offering up some part of who we are. We do that with the intention of meeting the crowd half way. With a good concert you need the crowd to be there, to be engaged, energised. Whether they've heard you a thousand times or it's their first time, it's your job to fall in love with you and to make them realise that you love what you're doing with then hopefully that crosses over to them and they will love what you are doing. So intense, we have a high energy show, there's lots of movement on stage, lots of engagement with each other. We try to have a really good time whilst also being very serious and professional with what we do and I think it shows when you see us live.
The Razor’s Edge: I think that’s perfectly encapsulated in the ‘Rainbow in the Dark’ video.
Ben: Yes, we are really happy with how that came out. At the end of our winter tour we did a short run down the west coast with some friends of ours in a band called UN. We wound up back in Denver for our first show in over a year, we headlined a wonderful venue called the Bluebird Theater and there were several hundred people there banging their heads and screaming. It was an amazing experience and to be able to have captured that performance on video is really satisfying to us. We love Denver and so much of what we have been able to accomplish is because this city has supported us, our fans here, our friends that run and work at different venues, it's just an amazing city to be part of its music scene.
The Razor’s Edge: Once we’re out of pandemic hell, what’s the plan? Where do you go from here?
Ben: We are defiantly going to get out on the road, we are chomping at the bit. It's always frustrating when you have to cancel a show. Up until this pandemic we have never cancelled a single show, we played if we were sick, we played if we had gear problems, van problems whatever. Obviously it's not just us canceling, it's these events, the tours, the festivals, we are ready to get back out there.
At the same time we started writing album number four towards the end of last year, as of February we hit a really good creative streak and so we hit a brick wall there as we can't all get together. As soon as we are able to we are going to jump back into that. We've got three songs written and we are tentatively slated to go into the studio with Dave Otero at the end of December and we will hopefully see a release for our next album probably early next summer. Of course that's assuming as you put it that this pandemic hell is over and that we can have band practices and go to recording studios. So fingers crossed the world gets back to some kind of normal and we get back to playing some kind of heavy metal live.
The Razor’s Edge: Thats awesome news, thank you for taking the time to talk to us here at The Razor's Edge we look forward to your return to the UK!
Ben: Thank you so much my friend, we really appreciate it. When we can come over to the UK we will be there. I was so stoked to be finally coming over, I've never been to the UK I've wanted to for years. I was hoping to be able to have some time to scope out some places where they filmed episodes of Doctor Who, I'm a big Doctor Who fan!
At this point the conversation tailed off into Whovian territory and Ben's love of the great Doctor before we went our separate ways.