If you grew up in the ’90s, there were a handful of songs you could not escape, and one of them was most definitely “Smooth” by Carlos Santana and Matchbox Twenty vocalist Rob Thomas. The Latin-infused hit about being in love on a hot day (…we think?) was the sort of gigantic hit that could be played anywhere from dive bars to light rock radio. And though we can’t speak for the entire world in 1999, one assumes that no one thought to turn it into a crushing doom-death track.
Thankfully, Ben Hutcherson is here to save “Smooth.” The lead guitarist of Denver downer-rockers Khemmis, Ben has spent the past few months of COVID quarantine working on a project he’s calling ‘The Doctor of Doom’ (the dude has a PhD) in which he’s covering some of the biggest hits of the ’90s as extreme metal tracks. It may sound like a novelty, but one listen to his looming cover of “Smooth” — here dubbed “Opus Santanas,” and backed by an unholy music video — shows hear the sheer amount of time and effort Ben is putting into this project, for which he’s launched a Patreon.
“In the songs that I had gone back to, there was something interesting happening,” says Ben. “Because fuck, I could make a grindcore version of ‘Smooth’ by Santana, and say, Ha ha! And that’s it. But for better or for worse, I spent a long time reconfiguring that song. Just the arranging of it took days, and then figuring out how I wanted to play things, and take the feel of the song and translate it to its other form. And I probably wouldn’t have done any of this if I hadn’t been locked in my house while a deadly virus rages outside. I suddenly had this time where I’m not going on tour this year, next year, fuck, ever again? So I could say, Fuck it and go get whatever straight job is available now in the age of the virus, or I could really double down on really being a musician.”
First things first: why cover the hits of the ’90s?
The whole thing started with this guy Glenn Fricker, who runs Spectre Sound Studios. He runs this annual contest — I didn’t know about it until this year — where he offers up some parameters, and says, ‘Pick a song from whatever, a genre or a decade, and turn it into a good metal song.’ And this year, it’s songs of the ‘90s. It can’t already be a metal song, it needs to be a pop song or a non-metal song of some sort. I was born in ‘85, so I got a little bit of the ‘80s, but I came of age in the ‘90s, and I don’t have nostalgia for that era at fucking all. Anyone who’s nostalgic for their own adolescence has to do some fucking work on themselves. If you peaked at 13, you gotta get some help.
So they announced the contest, and I put on Space Hog or the Wallflowers or something, and I thought, “God, this shit is just NOT GOOD.’ But my next thought was, ‘But these songs were huge!’ And that’s not to say that all songs that are hugely successful have something good in them, but a lot of them do! A lot of them were written by incredible talented people, especially full-on pop songs. We hear this a lot of in metal — metal musicians say, ‘Well, anyone can pick up a guitar and write a pop song!’ No, you fucking can’t, because if you could you’d be a millionaire. Now, some of these bands didn’t have ghostwriters, they weren’t classically-trained musicians, but they had something. Something’s going on there.
Interesting, but the ’90s also had a ton of great rock in it…and you picked “Smooth.”
In the case of “Smooth,” I forget the actual composer’s name, but Santana didn’t write the song. Rob Thomas wrote the lyrics after it had already been brought to him. But I was like, ‘This song has a lot going on.’ And I don’t know a lot about Latin music, but it seems rich with a lot of the chord progressions popular in Latin music, and this seems uncommon in American pop music. I wondered, ‘What’s going on there?’ So I dug into it, and lo and behold, there’s all this really interesting stuff happening. And that’s true of a lot of popular music from the ‘90s. Another example would be “Kiss From A Rose” by Seal — we associate that with whatever Batman movie he did it for, and the video where he’s shirtless on a building with a leather trenchcoat, but the composition of the song is fucking bonkers! Rob Thomas is not my favorite singer, but he’s a very talented singer — and I knew I was not going to match that. I had to find something in the music to latch onto. I know what my clean singing sounds like, and I ain’t fucking seal, I ain’t Rob Thomas, I ain’t any of these cats.
Is this a project a novelty, or something you’re making a full-time commitment to?
Well, I stopped teaching last spring, and last year was my first year with music being my primary source of income. I felt liberated, and I felt satisfied, and then this year happened, and I was like, ‘Well, FUCK ME RUNNING. What a terrible time to make this decision.’ But I could either lean into it and try to find these other ways to be creative and feel satisfied — and not only that, but do the thing I’ve been saying I want to do. Because whenever What The New Normal Is emerges, there’s not going to be time and space for experimentation and finding the self, it’s going to be, Let’s fucking go! I wanted to capitalize on that moment to live a life as a musician in so many ways, but which feels creatively satisfying. And still have fun! I’m giggling the whole time I’m doing this. I’m not slaving over the console and changing tunings, I’m sitting there thinking, ‘This is absurd that I’m doing this!’ But I take it seriously and let the absurdity of it be what’s just so funny, endearing, about it.
It’s all tied up in the questions of nostalgia and personal growth — and also that the ‘90s were…not as shitty as 2020, but not a great batch of years. Maybe we can acknowledge what a lame time that decade was. Because there’s always a retro fashion thing, but the ‘90s being nostalgia — ‘90s fashion is disgusting. JNCOs and extra zippers on your pants and shit — I lived through it once and I don’t need it again.
It’s true, man. Everyone loves nu-metal these days, and I always want to say, Are you fucking nuts? I was there! War is hell!
One of the things is, I fucking hate nostalgia. Nostalgia as a concept involves the romanticization of things that shouldn’t be romanticized. It involves the rewriting of history. We’re living in a moment where sociopolitically, nostalgia has been allowed to drive so much of what’s happening around us — nostalgia for a time when things were great. It fucking sucked then, and it fucking sucks now! Being nostalgic for moments in time decontextualizes what those moments were. Let me put it this way: I will fuck with the first System of a Down album. I will fuck with Slipknot. But I’m not going to act like the moment in American history that those albums came out of is somehow wonderful. I lived through it, and by looking back and saying, ‘Oh, it was actually like this,’ we downplay all the fucked-up stuff that was happening. Sociopolitically, the ‘90s? Fucking garbage! Creative industries as a whole were just filled with bloat and regurgitation. My original idea was to call this series Nostalgia Killer, but I don’t know, I feel like anything with ‘killing’ in the title might be not a good move right now. But my goal is to kill nostalgia.
To be fair, your main band, Khemmis, could be called ‘nostalgic’ by some in that it’s a van-style doom metal act in some ways. But it never sounds like Khemmis are trying to harken back to a cooler time or whatever.
Absolutely. And I think one reason we’ve always sort of balked at the label ‘doom’ is because there is that there’s been this sort of retro doom concept, I think, where bands dress up. Put on the bell bottoms, put on the loose flowy shirts, put on all leather. There’s a way to do that where it’s you being yourself, but there’s a way to do that where it’s a costume, and you’re thinking, ‘Man, I wish it was 1978.’ I fucking don’t! I think it would’ve been cool to see some bands in their heyday, but I wouldn’t want to live through the ‘70s! Anyone I know who did isn’t like, ‘Man, we gotta go back to that!’
I feel like there’s an important difference between recognizing your influences in anything. But if people started dressing up like Victorian writers and speaking like that, we’d mock the shit out of them! Are you nostalgic for the times before antibiotics? When you have a 37-year life expectancy? There are guitar players who channel Santana. He was never one of my dudes, but I respect the hell out of his playing. And if there was some dude who dressed like Santana, and his name was Mantana, it might be easily packaged and sold, but also, Santana wouldn’t be like, ‘Yeah, the ‘90s were great for me!’ The album was big because he hadn’t been anywhere. I bet he’s not nostalgic for 1999! I don’t think he wants to go back and re-film the “Smooth” video!
To keep this project from being a joke band, were there any songs or bands you didn’t want to cover? Is there a line, in terms of silly ’90s music?
It’s already sort of baked into the filter I have. Because I’m not looking at this as a wild, zany thing to do. My choice of songs is dictated by, Is there something about this? I picked “Smooth” because everyone knows that little guitar lick. It’s iconic, it is memorable, it’s an earworm, and I didn’t think about it because that’d be a real thigh-slapper, — that lick is classic! How can that lick guide what I want to do here? I think that’s why I — never say never — I’d never try to cover the Backstreet Boys or N’SYNC. The songs that I’ve done already, it’s the original music. Maybe in a different tuning, maybe at a different speed. I don’t plan to listen to Smooth again as long as I live, but I think it’s a well-performed song. I’m definitely not Weird Al trying to parody these things. I don’t want to be putting stuff out and make it just content for the web — it’s music I want to be proud of.
Check out Ben’s cover of “Smooth” below and reconsider this ’90s classic forever.
To keep up with Ben’s insane ’90s covers, you can throw some bones his way at his Patreon page.
Words by Chris Krovatin