For Khemmis, the wasteland is nothing new. The Denver three-piece’s music has always embodied that Robert E. Howard sense of living in a world among the ruins of the one before it, reveling in old-school heavy metal riffs and hooks while also seeming to mourn the time when they ruled the Earth. But in 2020, in the cultural crater surrounding the creation of their fourth full-length album Deceiver, Khemmis were presented with a novel concept: an ongoing calamity, an era sinking into the sand before their very eyes. The experience informed the new record considerably — though perhaps not in the cheeriest of ways.
“Whatever the fuck this world is, or is turning into, at least I have a new album to talk about and think about and take my mind off the fucking apocalypse,” chuckles guitarist and vocalist Ben Hutcherson. “Were it not for creative endeavors, certainly last year and probably also this year and until the earth collapses would be a lot harder to face were I not trying to put something joyful into the world. And if I were to say that to someone who isn’t in the world of heavy metal, they might be like, Joyful? Metal? But you get it. Taking personal experience and emotions and hopes and dreams and putting them into distorted guitars is my way of trying to keep humanity afloat.”
On the one hand, on Deceiver Khemmis sound as monolithic and infectious as ever. Tracks like “Living Pyre,” “Obsidian Crown,” and shackle-shattering closer “The Astral Road” sees Colorado’s chosen votaries both returning to their hard rock roots and demanding a greater scope from themselves than ever before. On the other, there is an extra dose of shadow here, less of the band’s previous spiritual yearning and more of an active downfall. According to Hutcherson, that extra level of darkness wasn’t just musical, but deeply personal.
“I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder at the beginning of last year,” says Ben. “I was consumed by suicidal ideation. I was done. I saw no point in being alive. And with the help of my amazing partner, and my amazing therapist, and an absolutely fantastic psychiatrist, I got the right meds, I got the right therapy, and as I started to come out of that. I had a newfound appreciation for where I was. And it’s not like I abandoned all of those previous thoughts — I still think living in a pretty shit gig, and I think existence is an unfair deal that we have no choice in. But rather than those things leading me to the conclusion of not wanting to be alive, it’s, We’re here, we’ve got this opportunity to do and create stuff, and whether or not it’s fair, we have a cosmic obligation to one another to lessen that suffering. The inherent suffering of existence is something that everyone’s going to face. And if you can lessen that burden for yourself and for others, I think you’re supposed to do that. And this album is me figuring out how to do that for myself first and foremost, and then for my bandmates, and then for everyone who wants to listen to this.”
Every musician I talk to tells me that they wrote their 2021 release before the COVID pandemic. But it sounds like you guys wrote Deceiver smack-dab in the middle of it.
Absolutely. Which is kind of interesting for a number of reasons — any time we do press for an album, and people ask questions about our personal lives or the political climate, like, Did this thing that happened recently influence the record? Well, no, we wrote this thing fifteen months ago! But in this case, it shaped it directly. This is the sound of a band that almost didn’t make it, and three individuals figuring out how to survive and thrive, and what it would take to make music that spoke to our personal experiences in a very honest way. It’s almost like we wrote records in between personal and public tragedies before, and so they’d be interpreted through that lens. But on this album, some of the riff ideas predate quarantine, but revisiting those ideas through that lens of, Literally what the fuck is happening? and, Can we leave our homes? — of not knowing when we’d be able to be in the same room together again — that changed how those notes sounded, and what we wanted those songs to sound like.
Did that manifest in specific ways?
I think there’s a trajectory on all Khemmis albums where we try to end on an epic high note. But the last note I play on the guitar on this album is an uncertain one. It doesn’t resolve to the tonic of the last one, it doesn’t resolve to a hit on the following measure, it ends in suspense. Because — and I wasn’t necessarily thinking of this at the time, but — this is the truth of how life is. It’s not going to resolve to a beautiful moment of bliss each time, but it’s going to keep going. And what you do with that…you really have two options. You can either check out, or your can acknowledge the fact that it’s going to hurt, and just do your fucking best. You can try to be kind, and try to be honest, and take it one moment at a time. And that’s what this album is to me — us figuring out how to do that. And we’re still figuring out how to do that! It’s not like we’re now the three most enlightened figures of heavy metal. Far fucking from it. But I see the shape of it in a way that I never did before. And that both informed the album, and was informed by the album, creating this and finding there is still joy to creating Khemmis. There is still joy to living. The cyclical relationship between those two things paints the last 18 months in a particular kind of light.
There’s this concept that negative experiences — depression, addiction — make for great art. Did you find that depression and uncertainty improved your writing, or did they actually hamper your creativity?
Definitely the latter. I’ve never been able to write while I’ve been in a bad place. And it wasn’t until I reckoned with that I have a mental illness — not just that I get depressed sometimes, but that a quintessential part of who I am IS depression — that was I able to better understand my relationship with it. I’ve always bristled at the idea of, I’m going to suffer to create art, because I wholeheartedly believe that nobody creates their best work when they’re hurting. And it doesn’t mean ignoring that hurt, but trying to fetishize it and trying to create moments of it to self-sabotage is the most contrived bullshit I can imagine. It’s easy to hurt. It’s easy to suffer.Why go out of your way to create more of it? I get upset when people talk about it in that sort of romantic fashion.
Is there a riff or song on Deceiver that you think embodies this change you enacted in yourself?
It was “Living Pyre.” We’d already been kicking around some ideas, but I sat down and wrote “Living Pyre” in pretty much one take last spring. I’d been on medication for about two months or so, long enough for it to have really taken effect, and I was waking up every day and feeling stable. I was eating again, I was bathing every day — basically, I was a human again! And I sat down with my guitar one day and started playing that opening riff, and I got that feeling, that feeling that anyone who does any kind of art knows, where you literally feel electrified and think, I need to stay in this headspace for as long as I can, because this is it. Whatever’s coming out is the good shit. That was the turning point — from that day on I was full speed ahead, just cranking out ideas, refining ideas. For quite a while, when we couldn’t be in the same space, Phil [Pendergast, guitar and vocals] and I were trading ideas using Guitar Pro, which is a new thing for us. And being able to see each others’ ideas tabbed out, and being able to modify them in real time — I mean, we wrote way more songs than we recorded, and that’s never happened before. And the flipside is, we weren’t able to rough them out in Guitar Pro, and then just get together. So by the time we all got together and got in a room again for the first time, we had all these ideas that we’d never played together. We didn’t know what it would feel like as a band. So there was still that creative process of being in a room and thinking, Oh, that feels weird, or, That feels too complicated, or, Too caveman. But getting to that point of having that our-cup-overfloweth moment, it started with “Living Pyre.”
Was there a song on the album that was the opposite — that didn’t flow immediately, that required some heavy lifting?
“House of Cadmus” was that way. “House of Cadmus” we struggled with for quite a while. We were jamming on it, and it just didn’t feel right. And one day, we get in the room, and Zach [Coleman, drums] is like, ‘We got too much shit in this song. We’re overthinking this. Let’s just cut all this unnecessary stuff out, and just RIFF RIFF RIFF.’ And sure enough, we took out all these little overthinking moments of, Hmm, what if we have this walkdown? Hmm, maybe we’ll modulate it right before it goes into the chorus? And we Khemmis’ed it up. We said, ‘When in doubt, make it dumber.’ At the end of that rehearsal, we were like, ‘Oh fuck, that’s what that song is supposed to be.’ And it’s still a long, winding song, but when we were writing it remotely, there was a tendency not just to overthink it, but also to overcomplicate it. Because even if you’ve got a guitar in your hands, the vibe of playing it by yourself with a MIDI backing track versus playing it in a room with other humans couldn’t be further apart. That was a really cool moment, and it was a really good reminder to us that yes, this Guitar Pro stuff is a really cool way for us to catalog ideas, literally tabbing it out for yourself is great, but there’s nothing better than being in a room and being able to workshop them.
You guys have always cited stripped-down bands like ZZ Top as big influences — it’s cool to see that that simplicity of purpose is still part of who you are.
We made a more concerted effort on this album to focus on the hook of each song than we ever had. Especially for choruses — like, what is the philosophy behind a chorus? It’s the part that creates a choral effect. That people are singing along with. We don’t need to put a million words in it, we don’t need to put a million notes in it, let’s make it a thing people want to hear. To your point, you go back to ZZ Top, or Iron Maiden, or Black Sabbath — the reason these songs hold up is because they get stuck in your head. Because they have these memorable moments. And the paradigm is different for different kinds of metal, but for the kind of stuff that we’re doing, if you over-emphasize the riff, then you lose the song. And then cool, you have a song with 13 cool riffs, but where’s the hook? Where’s the hook for someone who doesn’t play guitar? I mean, we’ve all seen these videos of Iron Maiden or Metallica or whoever playing these massive festivals, and people are screaming along with the chorus. The reason those moments happen is that those choruses are powerful. They speak to people. They’re things that people get tattooed on themselves, and wear shirts that say those words. This formula has been established, and we know it fucking works — we don’t need to reinvent this wheel, we just need to make it our own.
During the pandemic, you arranged a couple of insane metal versions of ’90s cover songs. Are those still ongoing, or did you have to put them on the back-burner for Deceiver?
I’ve got I think…eight that are arranged? And two of those I’ve started recording. Once I really dug into the writing for the album, I set aside the recording side of those things. I’ve got some weird ones. I’ve got an Eagle Eye Cherry cover worked out, I’ve got Space Hog, Third Eye Blind…so when I have some free time, I don’t know, next year, I’m going to sit down and record them in one batch. Recording them one at a time made sense initially because I had only one or two arranged, but if I get them all in a bulk process, it’ll be much more sustainable. It’s still a fun thing to do when I want to make music but don’t want to tap into my own trauma or joy. It’s like the Miller Lite of creating heavy metal. It kind of scratches the same itch, but only in the basest sense…but it beats not having anything!
Time to be a huge nerd: what can you tell me about the Kurgan-looking dude on Sam Turner’s cover for Deceiver?
So I’m going to be a little bit coy about it and say that there are clues on the album cover that tell you what’s going on. It’s not a new world. It’s not a bunch of new characters. There’s a clear connection, but maybe this doesn’t take place sequentially after the previous albums. But look at the little clues, look at what the protagonist is wearing, look at the art on the shields of the evil demon crew behind him, and you just might figure out who that is…or who that’s going to wind up being.
Khemmis’ Deceiver comes out November 19th on Nuclear Blast Records, and is available for preorder.
Words by Chris Krovatin