Black Sky and Black Rose: The Secret to Khemmis' Slow-Burning Rock'n'Roll

Stream the grizzled, Thin Lizzy-obsessed Denver upstarts' highly-anticipated new album, 'Hunted.'

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Oct 13 2016, 3:15pm

For the Denver-based quartet of Khemmis, success has come quickly. In less than two years, the doomed rock 'n' roll band has captivated masses of metal and rock fans after the release of their full-length debut, Absolution, in 2015. A second album in as many years would seem a tough task for any band, let alone one whose members are pursuing Doctoral degrees, teaching classes, and running one of Colorado's most well-known breweries, TRVE Brewing.​ Nevertheless, the classic rock-trained gentlemen have come racing back and are championing one of the best releases that 2016 has to offer.

Hunted sees its release on October 21 through the mighty 20 Buck Spin. Within its five towering tracks resides soaring riffs and polarized vocals executed with pinpoint precision by Phil Pendergast and Ben Hutcherson. The dueling guitarists and vocalists for the band are responsible for some of Khemmis' most striking characteristics. Phil's crisp, cleans contend with Ben's gritty growls as the band rides a slow, loud, and heavy wave of Thin Lizzy-inspired orchestrations that are moving them to the top of Denver's music scene.  

We called up Hutcherson and Pendergast on a sunny, Sunday afternoon to unpick Khemmis's identity (they sure don't sound like Pallbearer anymore!) as well as their interesting balance of academia, touring, and, naturally, that stunning sophomore album (which we're streaming below in full)

Noisey: Ben, you're originally from Memphis, right?
Ben Hutcherson: Well I played music in Memphis, yeah. I was born in Memphis but grew up in North Central Mississippi.

So how do you wind up in Denver?
Hutcherson
: By getting the fuck out of the south [laughs]. I had been living in Mississippi basically my whole life and was teaching at the University of Mississippi. I met my wife down there. I had a Masters in Sociology and she was finishing up her Masters in Sociology as well. We decided that we didn't want to live in Mississippi the rest of our lives so we decided to go back to grad school. We got into the program in Boulder and moved out here in August 2012. Which is how I met Phil, because we were in the same doctoral program. I met Phil the first day of anything grad school-related. They had this social mixer where they introduced all the new grad students. When the professor introduced me, he said, "He's from the South, his research is in Heavy Metal." Then, they let us go enjoy our free wine and cheese. Phil came over and said, "Oh, you like metal? What kind of metal do you like?" We made friends that day.

I just started my doctoral program and I have not had that kind of luck yet. I have to explain to people that I listen to metal, and I don't think people fully get it. You guys lucked out.
Hutcherson: Yeah, it's really cool but I've had that same experience as well. I've had to rebrand myself as a sociologist and talk more broadly about culture than about metal music. The moment you start talking about metal, 99 percent of people's eyes sort start to glaze over. They have no idea what you're discussing. They don't really care, but you can repackage it and make it sound fancy… Then that's when old, white people want to start talking about heavy metal.

Pendergast: What are you going to school for, Cody?

Physical therapy.
Hutcherson: Oh, that's cool

We've been doing cadaver labs this semester which is one of the most metal things ever pretty much. We took a bonesaw to the body of the sternum and hedge clippers to the ribs to peel the ribcage off our cadaver.
Hutcherson: Hedge clippers to a corpse. That's crazy, man. That's cool but that's crazy. I am not cut out for that kind of thing [laughs]

Once you get past the fact it was a human, it's way easier. So, 2015 was a big launching point for you guys. Absolution took a lot of people by storm, and 2016 is shaping up to be even bigger. One of the most noticeable things about  Absolution versus Hunted is how much better you guys got between albums. Would you chalk that up to increased cohesion between the band members, or were there things you knew you wanted to do differently this time?
Pendergast: It was more of a group effort all around. For the first album, Ben and I brought a few of the songs in, pretty much formed, and we would tweak things at practice. This time, things grew more organically out of sharing ideas and jamming things. We were really focused on writing songs instead of seeing if we could string catchy riffs together and then figuring out what we could do with that. We focused on cutting out everything that was unnecessary which ended up being really important. Then when it came time to recording we just stepped our game up a lot. We were practicing a lot and really trying to deliver the best thing that we could. Hopefully that is what you're hearing. I'm glad it translates that way.

Hutcherson: I think that when we recorded Absolution, we didn't really have a big plan. We were having a good time being a band, and we had written songs, [so] it seemed a natural step in progression to go and record these songs we had written. This time around we were much more intentional with everything we did. We came in with a notion of what we wanted this album to be like. Phil mentioned trimming the fat. That is something we really honed in on. Also, we made sure the songs all struck in the same sort of way and it wasn't a hodge-podge collection of songs. We knew that we had a series of ideas that we wanted to communicate within the context of a single album. That helped us approach the album in a much more holistic way.

Pendergast: Yeah, definitely. On Absolution, for instance, the track list was up in the air. We had this collection of songs, and I think they do sound thematically connected to each other but there is some more randomness in how it became an album. With the new one, before we entered the studio, we already knew the track listing for it. We had written the opener and closer specifically for those places. It was a lot more calculated.

There is a more organized approach and it is definitely apparent. Like you said, from opening chords to closing moments, there is a very high, intense focus you guys have on this.
Hutcherson: Thanks, man. When we wrote "Above the Water", we knew we needed something that was the Khemmis equivalent of "Blackened" and "Hellion" sort of blended together, but through the length of Khemmis because we can't play as fast as Metallica and we'll never be as cool as Judas Priest.

Pendergast: But we definitely studied those classic album openers and decided we had to do something similar in our own way.

Is there an intertwined narrative between the two albums?
Pendergast: I can say conceptually that a lot of the same themes came up on the albums, but the storylines are pretty different. I think maybe the art kind of reflects that. I also think it's likely you'll see a third album with similar art that will end up making the narrative of those pieces clearer. It wouldn't be fair to give anything away yet, because I haven't talked to all the guys about what I have been thinking about for a theme.

Hutcherson: We haven't really started writing anything for the new one. I mean, Phil and I have riff ideas. Whenever we finish an album, we're like, 'Well, I want to keep writing.' We haven't sat down and cobbled anything together yet. It's probably too early to try and tell people, when we don't know what direction the third album has yet.

Pendergast: It will be cohesive in some way. Maybe, a better question to ask after we figure out what it will look like.

What is it like working with Dave Otero for the albums?
Hutcherson: It's awesome. We've been fortunate to work with him twice now and this last experience was really good. Dave is very easy to work with, but he also will not let you put bullshit down and leave it. He knows when a lick can be played better or it doesn't fit. He's also good at cultivating this laid back environment. You don't feel like you're under the gun when you are in there with someone who has the history that Otero has. That can be overwhelming when you start thinking about who all has tracked in there. He's good at getting the best performance out of you, though.

Pendergast: I think he's a producer in the classical sense of the term. He acts as the listener and responds to what you're bringing in from that perspective, then tries to make it better and make it more of something that the listener would want to hear. He's good at offering constructive feedback about every tiny piece of the process. His hands are very much on in every step of the process.

Hutcherson: He actually recorded a pick slide for the album. [laughs] In the title track at the end of the intro, there is this long pick slide. We didn't have it in there and I had just finished tracking the lead parts. He's like, 'Hold on let me play guitar for just a second.' He gets it to that point and lays down a pick slide then says, 'What do you guys think?' We're like, 'Yeah that's awesome, also now you don't get any royalties. Just so you know.'

By now, you're often mentioned in the same breath as modern doom metal titans like Pallbearer, YOB and others. Where do you guys feel you stack up against those bands or some of the classic bands, say Candlemass or Cathedral, for example?
Hutcherson: It's certainly very flattering when people include us in a list with those kinds of bands. Especially when you talk about YOB, which is a band that is a huge influence on all of us. It's one of my favorite bands of all time. But, at the same time we don't think of ourselves as a doom band in the sense that a lot of people assume. We play slow and we're influenced by some of those bands but one of the things that I think makes this album different from the first is that we really tried to dig in and channel that love of Iron Maiden and Thin Lizzy, that kind of stuff. We think of ourselves as a slow rock 'n' roll band instead of a doom band. Not that we're averse to doom, but the way we think about making this music is a little more rock 'n' roll.

Pendergast: I guess if we're thinking about who we talk about when we're at band practice. I think we have more conversations about, 'How can we make this part sound more like Thin Lizzy' than 'How can we make this part sound more like Candlemass', if that makes sense.

Yu guys play slowed-down rock 'n' roll, and Pallbearer veers more towards classic doom—you two have really got both sides of the coin covered when it comes to this kind of music.
Pendergast: I think that was the best thing that came of playing that show because it was really apparent what the difference is between the two bands. I think a lot of the time, people make the easy comparison and it doesn't get fully examined. I think we would love to do a tour like that because it would show the two sides of the "doom coin", like you were saying. You'd get the rock then you'd get the soul crushing heaviness.

Hutcherson: Yeah, thanks man. It's not like we wrote the album and were like, 'Now people will stop comparing us to Pallbearer!' But when we got done with it and heard it in Otero's studio we said, 'Oh, we really don't sound like Pallbearer on this record.'

Khemmis also has an album release party with Spectral Voice and Cult of the Lost Cause on October 21. You all and some of the dudes from Spectral Voice (who are in Blood Incantation) are having big 2016s, so who do you think has the better album this year? You, Spectral Voice, or Blood Incantation?
Hutcherson: [laughs] Man, that Blood Incantation album is so fucking good.

Pendergast: Yeah, we went to their release show for that album the other night. All of us from Khemmis just walked over there. It fucking ruled. It was in this shitty warehouse behind someone's house. The singer was so funny. He was stepping on this super crazy delay unit whenever he would talk to the crowd and would mention the word 'space'. It would echo and reverb all over the place, it was cracking me up.

Hutcherson: Paul's a hoot, man. At one point, between songs in his monotone voice, he asked, "Do you guys like space?" Everyone kind of laughed and he said, "Well it doesn't fucking matter because it's real whether you like it or not."

Do you guys have any tour plans set up for the rest of this year?
Hutcherson: Not this year. We're doing the album release show then the next day we're hitting the road to do Southwest Terror Fest. We've all got families, careers, and stuff. We're not going to be on the road 30 weeks or anything next year. We've got a couple fly-in dates in January, doing Chicago and New York in the second week of January. We're going to try and do some longer touring dates in the summer. It all depends if whether or not we can get Metallica to take us out on tour [laughs]. We'll go back to the west coast next summer and do an extensive Midwest/east coast run and maybe Europe. We're trying to get to Europe. There is bucket list material for all four of us there.

I'm in North Carolina if you guys ever need anywhere to crash.
Hutcherson: Hell yeah, man. We'll take you up on that.

Pendergast: Especially if you don't right next to a school because whenever we park the Doom Van next to a school we get some funny looks.

Hutcherson: Turns out, having a '78 Chevy Van with the license plate that says "DOOMVAN" on it makes middle class parents really nervous.

You know I can kind of understand the concern there.
Pendergast: Especially when you see what a guy like Ben looks like. Jesus

Hutcherson: Hey! What am I, chopped liver? No, I'm a threat to middle class families, that's what I am. "Oh he looks sketchy, Oh God! He's preaching about Marx! He's going to dismantle Capitalism by himself!"

Any parting thoughts to fans about the album or anything else?
Hutcherson: Thanks to anyone who has already pre-ordered the album. We're overwhelmed that people care enough to preorder the album and order an extra shirt, pin, or patch. It's overwhelming and it's humbling. We appreciate that people find meaning in what we do and that it connects with folks. We hope that it continues to do that and that you come and see us when we're in your town. And, Metallica, take us out on tour.


KHEMMIS Tour Dates:
10/21/2016 Hi-Dive – Denver, CO *record release show w/ Spectral Voices [info]
10/23/2016 Club Congress – Tucson, AZ @ Southwest Terror Fest w/ Saint Vitus, The Skull, more [info]
1/13/2017 Reggies - Chicago, IL
1/14/2017 Saint Vitus Bar - Brooklyn, NY w/ Crypt Sermon

Cody Davis is fading to black on Twitter.