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Killer Riffs and Bad Trips: An Interview with Khemmis

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Among 2015’s debut albums, few held a candle to Khemmis’ Absolution. As much a kickass riff-fest as it is a towering doom monolith, Absolution perfectly straddles the line between stoner metal and heavy rock, never losing its edge while simultaneously keeping the listener interested throughout. It’s hard to imagine of a band playing music this drenched in smoke and cosmic black magic that won’t piddle off into some self-indulgent jazz odyssey bullshit, but Khemmis finds a way. All this while two members get their PhDs and one runs the coolest brewery in all of Denver. No wonder their upcoming sophomore album is one of my most-anticipated releases of this year.

Interviewing Khemmis is much like listening to Khemmis: it’s entertaining, unusual, and goes well with beer. When we meet up at Trve Brewing in Denver, the three members in attendance — Ben, guitars and harsh vocals; Phil, guitars and clean vocals; and Zach, drums — are excited to talk riffs, their upcoming new album, ZZ Top, and the most upsetting mushroom trip of all time.

Below is the trimmed-down version of our drunken rantfest. If you’re at SXSW, catch Khemmis at MetalSucks’ official South By South Death showcase tonight.

First off, how did Khemmis come together? Are you all from Denver originally?

BEN: I moved here about four years ago for grad school, to work on my PhD. And I’d been here a week or so, and I met Phil. Phil was also in the same department. But we didn’t play music with each other for, I don’t know, eight months? A year? Anyway, three months in, in a new state, I was miserable. I was drinking myself to death, and thought, Okay, I gotta make some music. So I’d, put this post on Craigslist, and I went back to it and put up a picture of the Jawas from Star Wars carrying a Sunn Model T. And I was like, All right, hopefully this picture will signify what we’re doing. The next day, Dan, our bassist, was like, “I like that picture. Let’s go to Trve and get a beer.” We didn’t even know Zach at the time, but I knew Nick [Nunns, owner of Trve Brewing] a little bit, and I think Nick put us in touch…

ZACH: It was Reed [Bruemmer, frontman for Speedwolf]. I had moved here, and Reed was like, “Hey, I know these guys, they’re looking for a drummer. You oughtta check ‘em out.”

BEN: So, at some point we decided we wanted non-heavy vocals, so I was out. But the minute we decided that, I called Phil and said, “Hey, bring your shit over to the space, let’s jam.” We drank a bunch of beer, turned our amps all the way up, and just played. Then we potentially auditioned other people, but every time, it was, “No, fuck this. Phil, come over. We’re going to be a band.” And that was it! Oh, and the name! Dan had just had it in his head since college and liked the way it sounded. But whenever people first heard it, they were like, “Oh, are you a doom metal Nile?” And we’d have to say, “No, you’re overthinking it. It just sounds cool.” And here we are, drinking beer.

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Your sound is very unique among doom bands. How long did it take to find that?

BEN: The first time it really started to click in that way was when we were writing “Antediluvian.” We got to that middle section, and were just calling it the Iron Maiden section, and we thought, Hey, this rules. So by the time we were writing “Ash, Cinder, Smoke”, it was all Iron Maiden section, and we thought, Hey, yeah, always this!

PHIL: We wrote “The Bereaved” before any of that, but it wasn’t until Zach got on board. We realized we all fucking loved Thin Lizzy—why not just do that? And part of that’s because Dan and I aren’t super great at our instruments! That’s always resulted in us writing stoner and doom riffs. Dan’s kind of the same way. I don’t think he’d be offended by me saying that.

ZACH: What I feel like differentiates our sound is that it has a basis in rock and roll rather than metal. Rather than Black Sabbath, its base is in ZZ Top and Thin Lizzy. I remember when we started hitting those riffs, it reminds me of what I love about rock and roll so much. And it made me want to play drums in that way, and reverse-engineer it into the doom mold.

You definitely don’t have that heavier-than-all attitude.

BEN: Part of it, too, is just getting old. At eighteen or nineteen, I thought, ‘Song structure is bullshit! We should have as many blast beats and riffs as we can in a song! A three-minute song should have twenty two sections!’ As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought, ‘You know what’s awesome? Tres Hombres!’ That shit is cut and dry, and it gets in your head, and you want to hear it again and again and talk to other people about it. Let’s make it rock and roll.

ZACH: For me, it’s like…I still love evil death metal, and I always will, and I can do that in a very serious way. But over here, I can have a band like Khemmis. As a person, you can have different aspects of your personality. Something I don’t like about the elitist underground is that it seems to only have one personality type, and one sound. I laugh at a joke sometimes too! I can be a rounded human!

PHIL: And for me, like…I don’t personally like a lot of shit that’s just fucking dark all the time. I need that ray of light that shines through the darkness to grab me, as a listener. And I think that’s consciously something that transcribes for us. It’s important, for me, to have contrast.

Phil, your clean vocal sound is definitely unique. Lots of doom bands go for that high Bruce Dickinson vocal, while yours is more clerical.

PHIL: I’ve never sang before in a band like this. But I really like soul and R&B—my favorite rock vocalist would probably be David Bowie—so I think I’m more influenced by those things than by metal singers. Bruce Dickinson is probably my favorite metal singer, but I know I can’t sing like that. It’s me trying to deal with my own limitations as a vocalist, but also trying to sing with some soul. I don’t know if it comes through or not, but that’s what I’m trying to do. I try to sound like a soul singer singing in a doom band as much as possible.

There’s a sense of a running theme on Absolution. Is that me ideating, or is there something there?

PHIL: I think there’s definitely a theme. For me, especially while recording the album and finally committing it to tape and committing to people hearing it… it was hard for me. It was very personal. Over the past few years I’ve been dealing with the aftermath of some very close ones committing suicide, and dealing with what that means, grappling with ideas of whether I could do anything to stop this. Some very heavy themes with some deep resonance. Ultimately, while I was scared of writing about some of this stuff—especially what my parents might think, which seems kind of silly now—it left me feeling very absolved of all of these feelings that I have. ‘Absolution’ means that it’s something that’s difficult, something you have to work for, but something that leads to relief.

ZACH: I think everyone in the band was going through a relatively hard time. There was a lot of shit going on personally for everybody. This next album might be heavier in that way!

BEN: People always talk about playing music as being catharsis, but for us there was this measurable, tangible thing that came out of it. At least to some extent, we can now deal with other sad parts of our lives. Or happy parts!

Usually, the cathartic element is assigned to the live arena, where you sweat it out, as opposed to recording where you get at the source.

PHIL: It’s very different, though. It’s harder to commit something permanently. A record you can read into.

ZACH: Tell him the story behind “The Bereaved.”

What’s the story behind “The Bereaved”?

PHIL: Basically, it’s about a point in my life I had a few years ago where I was blasting my mind with as many hallucinogenic substances as I could, all the time. I was trying to figure out what was left inside of me. I was wandering around my college campus, and I used to go and pick my own mushrooms. So I stumbled across this huge patch of mushrooms off to the side of this path. They were super purple cyanescens—I don’t know if you know them, but they’re the most potent variety of hallucinogenic mushrooms. And I picked a couple pounds of these things, and later that evening me and my friend took some. I took, if I had to guess, eight times more than people typically do. Probably at least three or four times more than I had before. I was trying to obliterate my ego, and I ended up just having this terrible trip. I was smoking a blunt in a park that night, and my vision got clouded by this black writhing mass that looked like worms, that was just invading my brain. I blacked out, fell down a few times, and landed on a planter box with my face and broke my jaw. Almost bit off my tongue. I was bleeding all over the place. My friend, who was also…not very sober, he was freaking out. He was like pretty convinced I was dying, and he convinced me I was dying. And this was just as I was coming up, so I had another five or six hours to contend with this fact, that I was too scared to go to the hospital and get medical help, and I had to just sort of hold myself together and stuff cotton balls into my tongue, and deal with it. So, I was afraid I was gonna die the whole time. I didn’t know who would help me. It was horrifying to me—the most terrifying experience of my life. So that’s what that song’s about—going to the brink of your own madness, and life, and then coming through the other side, ultimately better for the experience.

Jesus fucking Christ. Did you end up going to the hospital?

PHIL: I went to the hospital the next day. And one of the reasons I didn’t go to the hospital the night before was that a family member had committed suicide right outside of the hospital, and I didn’t think I could face going there when I was tripping. So the next day, I went down there and got some help. They were like, ‘You’ll be fine!’ And it wasn’t until a couple of weeks later that I developed an infection in my tongue, and they went back and realized I’d broken my jaw, too. So then I had to live with having my jaw wired shut for a couple of months. Couldn’t eat food, et cetera.

I’ve been doing this about eight years, and that’s the most brutal story I’ve ever heard.

ZACH: It was the same feeling for me when Phil told me the story behind the song. Fuck, man, that’s insane!

How’s the new album shaping up? From how Ben described it to me in the e-mail, it sounds like it opens up new realms for you guys.

BEN: I’d say yes with an asterisk. I mentioned that to someone else in an interview, and they said, ‘Oh, no, are they a post-metal band now?’ Fuck no. We don’t have the patience for that many delay pedals. I think in a lot of ways, it’s more riff-driven in the ‘70s rock kind of sense. There’s more swagger, there’s more boogie…and we probably have some of our slowest parts ever. We took what we did before and tried to do it more cohesively, and everything that we did on the first album we’re trying to do more of.

ZACH: It’s more rocking. It’s heavier. It’s more melodic. It’s more epic. It’s got more of everything. There’s a few bands where their second albums are so good, because they’re the same band but they’re doing more of the cool shit from the first album.

PHIL: Pushing in all directions, I think. For a lot of bands, the second album is them trying to find their unique voice, and I think we did that on Absolution.

BEN: Totally by accident! We were just writing the music we wanted to, rather than saying, “What are we?”

Phil and Ben, you two are getting your PhDs. Is it hard to juggle that and being in the band?

PHIL: It’s brutal.

BEN: The reality is that we can only take advantage of certain opportunities, and we’ve had to turn down some opportunities that were very cool. I guess we can say now that it’s been announced—we got offered that [most recent] Amon Amarth tour. And had it been a month later, we could’ve done it. But it started three weeks before the end of the semester, and Phil and I can’t not teach then. We tried to get the agent to do a half-and-half thing, but they said no. It was great that we’d gotten the offer.

I’m sorry to hear that. Amon Amarth’s crowd would have loved you guys.

BEN: And it wouldn’t have just been little shitty clubs either. We’d be playing to hundreds of people a night. I think one of the venues was, like, 1800 capacity? And I sent the e-mail! I had to tell the dudes. I drafted it and let it sit a while. What other band gets that offer and is like, “Yeah, well…”

But what other band has members who are getting their PhDs?

PHIL: Right. We have a head-brewer here, and Dan’s self-employed. Dan builds bridges—who’s going to build bridges while he’s gone?

ZACH: It is a real aspect of the band. We have real responsibilities that we can’t just drop. One of my favorite things about this band is that I have the job that I want, and that allows the band to remain a thing that is fun, and a thing that I want to do. The band isn’t a job, it’s a thing that rules, where we can be creative. We’re doing what we want to do outside of the band, so the band is a nice bonus.

BEN: We don’t just tour and hope to make rent. I mean, the fact that anything is happening—the fact that we’re talking to you is still kind of mind-blowing. Because when we started this, it was like, “We want to start a band and play some shows around Denver, and hang out with friends.” That was it. No aspirations. I’ve toured before, and not for years and years, but I’ve done a bit of touring, and I didn’t care for it towards the end. Dudes who couldn’t pay you whatever, or scraping together nickels and dimes for gas—I was so disillusioned about all of that. And then when we started talking about it, we went on tour for the summer and it was the most fun I’ve ever had.

That’s cool. The minute a band becomes a burden, it’s no longer worthwhile.

ZACH: That’s something I think that’s important for us. If we want to take a month to write a song, or four months, we can.

BEN: If someone wants to give us a million dollars to do this, that’d be different! But the reality is, we have jobs that pay the bills, we have relationships outside the band that don’t suffer more than usual. It’s also nice to have supportive partners. Dan’s kid, who’s maybe the coolest kid that I’ve ever met, is like… seven, I guess? And she wears her Khemmis shirt. She tells people, “It’s my dad’s band.” She has her own battle vest now, too. She’s self-aware about it, too—it’s not like he put it on her and said, “Go advertise!” She said, “Your friends wear vests. I want a vest. Buy me a vest. We’re doing it.” One of the cool things about Denver is that you can be a person. You can have different tastes, you can show emotion…I’ve never been worried about someone coming up and interrogating me about patches on your vest. There’s never any cutthroat mentality. Even if you’re vying for the same opening slot of a tour, people are just pumped. “You got that slot? Awesome. Let’s have a good time.”

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