The Denver doom lords, Khemmis, balance life and music as the group’s latest album ‘Hunted’ gains massive critical acclaim
By Brian F. Johnson
A lot of people just don’t understand how much the music industry has changed. They’re the people that still have it in their head that a #1 record brings with it insurmountable riches, lavish never-ending on-the-road parties and a complete abandonment of any sort of ‘normal’ life.
But for Denver slow and low metal lords Khemmis, who in October released their sophomore album Hunted, it’s still almost entirely about normal life, despite the fact that their album has made incredibly massive waves across the metal oceans.
Decibel Magazine named Hunted its #1 Album of the Year. Rolling Stone listed it as one of the 20 Best Metal Albums of 2016. It was placed on Apple Music’s Best Metal of the Year playlist, and took home honors on a myriad of other Top 10 lists by a variety of media outlets, including this one.
Khemmis has “exploded” according to many, but to the guys in the group, life still feels just as it always has, and in fact, the notoriety is still very much an odd novelty. “I went to Chicago this spring for baseball,” said bassist Dan Beiers during a recent interview with The Marquee. “I was walking through O’Hare and saw someone wearing a Bears cap and a Khemmis shirt. I’ve been to DIA a hundred times and never seen a Khemmis shirt. We’re metal heads. We go to metal shows and we have friends in metal bands and we go see all those bands. We know everybody, or it feels like we know everybody in Denver. We feel like there are a handful of people who know about Khemmis in Denver. So when you’re saying that Hunted is blowing up or getting recognition it’s funny because I still feel like there’s 100 people or maybe even 50 people in Denver who know anything about us.”
Laughing he continued, “‘Oh you have the number one metal record?’ I tell that to the other parents at my kids’ soccer practice and they’re like, ‘Oh wow, so what’s that mean? Are you going to buy a house on the coast?’ No man. I’m going to struggle to make my mortgage just like I did before.”
But while the members’ bank accounts might not be adding extra zeroes as of yet, the accolades from the metal world surrounding Hunted even at their most subdued, have been nothing short of astonishing. The band, which has time and time again avoided the rank and file doom-metal taxonomy and instead described their sound as “slowed down Iron Maiden,” sees the album both as a natural evolution and a departure from their debut release Absolution.
Guitarist/vocalist Ben Hutcherson, in a separate interview with The Marquee, explained that when the band put together its first album it learned a lot, including the fact that they could do better. Absolution gained a lot of notoriety in its own right, but Hutcherson said that to them it was just a starting point. “With Absolution it was the kind of thing of four friends hanging out, drinking beer, writing music and it was like, ‘Shit, we got an album.’ Well, what do you do when you’ve got an album? You go record it. And we weren’t purposive of what we were doing other than trying to do the best we could, and we learned a lot from that, including that we felt like we could write a more compelling, cohesive, sort of singular work as opposed to just a series of ideas that are strung together that might be catchy or whatever. We felt early on that we had this next level that was available to us and not in some sort of, you know, like moment of inspiration, metaphysical boundaries be damned, it was just sort of, ‘We can write better songs than that, right? Yeah. So Let’s do it.’ And as we started doing it we found that if we really buckled down and really worked on it as a collective unit we could wrangle together these songs,” Hutcherson said.
The five songs that they “wrangled together” clock in at just under 45 minutes, but cover monumental landscapes of space and time. Noisey called Hunted a “near-perfect blend of sludgy stoner rock, traditional doom, heavy metal, and ’70s hard rock — one that nods to Pallbearer as often as it bows to Thin Lizzy.” And their biggest cheerleader Decibel glowed, writing “Khemmis’ reverence for yesteryears’ loudest riffs resonates in their musical choices without defining them. There’s no ho-hum sameness, no bag of recycled fourth-hand tricks. Hunted is an album where vulnerability coexists with crushing heaviness to give intangible expressions weight and volume. Doom disciples have long flocked to that [Tony] Iommi monolith, hoping to recapture its deceptively simple majesty. With cinematic elegance and an unwavering dedication to loud + heavy, Khemmis are swiftly building their own monolith on the same mountain top.”
Beiers said that during the writing process he wasn’t certain the album would resonate as well as their debut had and was worried about the changes that the group did make to their sound. “I was a little bit on the fence because to me Absolution had a certain level of kind of like stonery riffs that Hunted really doesn’t have,” Beiers said. “I guess it depends on who you’re talking to but Absolution had quite a few songs with bridges that could be classified pretty cleanly as stoner rock almost like Fu Manchu-ish or something like that, and I thought we might lose some folks along the way if we didn’t have those elements on Hunted. I never said we should write more stonery riffs into the songs or anything like that, I just remember saying, ‘I don’t know if these stoner rock fans are going to like this that much.”
Hutcherson on the other hand thinks that is exactly the point behind the basic theme of Hunted and that the changes they made to their sound were all part of the grand evolution of Khemmis. “If you think of Absolution as being this sort of idea of breaking free, or sort of coming to terms with grief and loss and figuring out how to move forward, then I think Hunted is sort of about how do you start moving forward, and in this case, you start looking forward by looking backward,” Hutcherson said. “I think it has to do, and a lot of it has to tie back into, Absolution in so much as that it’s not just coming to terms with certain things but making sense of how those moments of loss and pain have changed you in a particular kind of way and offer a different kind of path forward than the one that you had expected to take.”
If that all sounds awfully self-aware and big-brained for a bunch of metal heads, that’s because it is. Each of the four members, Beiers, Hutcherson, guitarist/vocalist Phil Pendergast and drummer Zach Coleman, all have non-disposable career jobs. Both Hutcherson and Pendergast met in the same Sociology PhD program at CU Boulder, where they both teach, while Beiers runs his own engineering firm and Coleman is the head brewer at Denver’s TRVE Brewing.
Hutcherson explained that while he does a lot of teaching of broader sociology classes, his specific sociological research is, like his art, based around metal music. “It’s an extended ethnography of the Denver underground with a primary emphasis on the sort of slow and low — the doom, stoner, sludge kind of stuff. Of course any sort of genre boundaries like that are not going to be — they’re a little bit fluid. So when I tend to think about the music and the music world of slow and low, you’re always going to have that cross-over of people that play and or listen to lots of other styles as well. So I try to frame it a little bit more broadly in terms of being more about the underground especially as it’s connected to the doom/stoner/sludge scene and as it is particularly seen and experienced in the Baker neighborhood with shows at the hi-dive, 3 Kings, Mutiny, things like that. Other sites are part of it as well, but I’m really interested in the Baker/Arts District and to a lesser extent RiNo and that’s where things have started to change,” he said. “One of the things I’m interested in is how economic development effects how people make and experience art and so that’s what sort of drew me to the Baker neighborhood to, right there, sort of see the clash between the ‘Arts District’ and the rapid forces of development. Cause you know closing down [Rhinoceropolis] and closing down Flux Capacitor in [Colorado] Springs and stuff, ostensibly those things are ‘safety concerns’ but I think it would be naïve to assume that development isn’t the larger driver of action.”
While doctoral pursuits and higher levels of employment for the members of Khemmis brings with it a great liberation since they don’t have to rely on their band to pay the bills, it also keeps them from being constant road warriors and forces the band to work smarter, not harder. Although the old model of put out an album and tour incessantly is long dead as a business plan, bands still need to venture outside of their hometown from time to time to grow their audience, and Khemmis is careful to balance their careers, home lives and band lives so that they can each feed one another instead of being burdens to the other facets of their existence. To that effect, the band will announce some tour dates outside of Denver later this month, but the group will take to the road in smaller, more direct touring jaunts throughout 2017.
“It’s a struggle. It’s been a struggle since the moment we decided to even push beyond Denver,” said Hutcherson. “But it’s a struggle that we think is worth engaging in. You’re right to say that we do have this certain amount of freedom because we’re not beholden to music to fill in the gaps with income or anything, but that’s a double-edged sword at some point. As people are taking notice and getting on board with us we’re getting asked to do a lot of things that we just have to say no to and that’s certainly frustrating. We’ve had to turn down more than one thing that has been a painful note to type out. But with that in mind it’s really about trying to make any time we can spend out on the road as effective as possible. So if something doesn’t fit that we have to politely decline because if we fuck up the home life then there is no more Khemmis to be had.”
Go If You Dig:
- Iron Maiden