Interview: Khemmis

We believe that if we've made an album that we believe in and that we would want to listen to, then we've done correctly.

After a very difficult time for all three band members, Khemmis have returned with their vast new album Deceiver and it is a epic listening experience packed full of everything that Khemmis are renowned for, doom metal packed full of passion and emotion and channelled into monumental songs. Gavin Brown talked with Khemmis vocalist and guitarist Ben Hutcherson extensively about the making of Deceiver, what went into its creation and how the band members overcame a lot as they were making it as well as putting their own mark on an Alice In Chains classic and their triumphant return to the stage.

E&D: Your new album Deceiver is out now. Can you tell us about the creation and recording process of the album?    

Ben: We had started on a few ideas remotely but what I didn’t realise at the time is that I was beginning to spiral into what would wind up being the longest and most difficult depressive episode of my entire life and that similarly, everyone else in the band was struggling with their mental health and with their physical health in a way. We didn’t all know that each of us was suffering because we had grown apart and we had become disconnected from one another as a band. Perhaps even more importantly as friends, as brothers. By the time the beginning of 2020 and the pandemic forced us all to block ourselves at home and try to stay safe and healthy, we all wound up having to confront various issues in our own lives that had been neglected for months or even years. In my case, that meant coming to terms with my own struggles, with mental health and finding myself at a point in which I no longer wanted to live. Thankfully with my absolutely amazing wife and my amazing friends and a great psychiatrist and some great medication, I got the help that I needed early in 2020 to sort of right the ship. As I began my recovery process, I had to ask myself some tough questions about what Khemmis had become for me and if I wanted to continue to be part of this band. Again, what I didn’t know is everyone else is asking themselves that same sort of question. By the time that I was able to build a sort of stable, emotional and physical, and maybe even spiritual sort of foundation for myself, Phil and I began talking with one another and realising, that rather serendipitously, had all been navigating these problems that hadn’t gone unaddressed and that we were trying to make sense of our own experiences and make sense of our own suffering in the context of a world that was quite literally on fire. It wasn’t like we got together, had a quick conversation on zoom and that was that. It took hours of talking about, big picture stuff and being honest with one another, being honest with ourselves to realise that we still had love in our hearts, quite a lot of love in our hearts actually, for one another and for this band, and then that we wanted to keep creating and we wanted to write another album and wanted to continue to find that inspiration and find that joy. In order to do that, we’ve had to be honest about everything that not only had we gone through that, but that we were still going through and the sort of broader associates, the cultural moment in which those epiphanies and those long nights asking yourself tough questions. 

What that meant when we began writing this album is that we have always have said that the ethos in Khemmis is to be honest, and to write from a place of vulnerability. We believe that if we’ve made an album that we believe in and that we would want to listen to, then we’ve done correctly. That was particularly true here where we knew we needed to find the kind of music that as far as what we were listening to that spoke to us on a more profound level, and that resonated with these struggles and with these moments of success and enjoyment and that our new material would have to reflect that. I just think we had some ideas kicking around and we had a starting place, if you will, that you know, as every album that we write, it starts with guitars and that wound up being the opening riff to ‘Avernal Gate’, and he said, this is it right here, this is the starting and we need to embrace whatever is driving this. That was a little bit scary because it’s fairly different. I mean, it’s still sounds like melodic of course, but the idea of putting that riff was that sort of what we call the aggregation drumbeat, seemed like it might be too unexpected, and yet all three of us knew that was the right place to start because it felt honest. We just had these ideas kicking around and we were writing remotely because we couldn’t leave our homes, it, wasn’t safe to be in the same room at the same time. Phil and I taught ourselves how to use guitar pro so that we could exchange ideas back and forth. We tried to sort of jam in real time over Skype or zoom, and that was just a nightmare. The latency there meant that one of us would start playing the and the other one would start playing a half a second later. There was just no way to get it to work. We started getting the mechanical foundation in place in terms of, again, teaching ourselves guitar pro and setting up these Dropbox folders. I just remember sitting down in my office and this was late spring, early summer and I sat down with a guitar and my hands just started doing a thing on their own, and what came out was the first riff of ‘Living Pyre’. I felt in that moment plugged in, in a way that I hadn’t in years and anyone that does any kind of creative work knows that feeling. I mean, you, as a writer, know that feeling when you get in that flow state and you feel like if you could just stay in that head space, you could create the best work you’ve ever done. I hadn’t felt like that in years. I didn’t know if I would ever feel like that again and yet there I was in that state and I sat here with that guitar in my hands. I may have stopped for lunch that day, but I pretty much played guitar for about eight hours that day, and by the end of the day, I had a skeleton for ‘Living Pyre’. What wound up being probably, I dunno, 80% of the final song.

I got it all together and I sent it over to Zach and Phil and I said, brothers, this is what I did today. I think I’m back. I think I can reconnect with that part of myself that not only had I gotten disconnected from but in many ways had become afraid of. A thing that nobody tells you is that when you experience even the slightest bit of success, one of the great fears that can start to creep up is that you are that, and only that and that nothing else you’ll do will matter. It’s not anything that anybody says, it’s one of those voices in your head that creeps up and it starts every now and then, and then it gets louder and it gets louder. I had at points in the previous years, become definitely afraid that Khemmis was the only thing that was worth having. That’s a tough way to feel, and it puts you in a rough position when you think you don’t love doing what you’re doing anymore. I felt, and still feel incredibly grateful to have had the realisation that I had don’t have to just be that Ben, that realisation allowed me to reconnect and to be able to find that space. Zach and Phil were able to come to their own, through their own journeys, their own similar realisations. I mean, as I was struggling with my mental health and trying to get help for that, they were having to address their own you know, inner demons. What that meant was that not only did ‘Living Pyre’ sort of signifies this renewed creative spark for me, but that had got the ball rolling for all three of us and suddenly, we had a couple of ideas kicking around, but nothing was really gelling, suddenly Phil and I were sending ideas back and forth every day and sometimes we would send updated versions of the same song back and forth two or three times in a single day or we would work on more than one song in a day. It just felt like we couldn’t get the ideas out fast enough. We couldn’t overstate how excited we were, because we didn’t know if we would feel like that again but it was more intense and more all encompassing in the best way like that joy in my life permeated every aspect of my life. I found that reconnecting with myself as a musician and with Phil and Zack in reconnecting with this spirit of Khemmis that I felt joy and other parts of my life that had started to dwindle.

The irony of saying that, we were finding joy in writing this album when this album is absolutely our darkest album. And as the, I think most most straightforward in terms of presenting the lyrics and as static of, of what drove the creative process, you know, and those are all extremely dark things, but we were writing from this place of understanding and I think a place of compassion for ourselves and each other that allows us to tap into those feelings without having to glorify our own suffering. And also without having to minimise our own stuff, to recognise  that everybody’s journey and everybody’s struggle as overused as those words are, those things are real and everybody’s looked different and everybody’s feels different. I think it’s easy to not only fetishise our own suffering as artists, and to think that we have to go out of our way to cultivate more pain and suffering so that we can have inspiration for our art, which is absolutely true. That’s how you wind up in an early grave, it’s not only do we not have to revisit that, but that we can be honest about it. We don’t have to focus so thoroughly in metaphor that it is no longer recognisable as an individual or an estate, a group sort of collective recounting of a really, really painful, not even just year or a couple of years, but existence. And by the time we had this album written, we found that for the first time ever, we had written and demoed out more songs that would actually go on the album.

 

E&D: Do you think this has been the biggest learning experience with your music, making this album and that it will serve you in the future as well?

Ben: Yeah, I absolutely know, the incorporation of guitar pro for instance, into our writing process. We didn’t really have a choice because we couldn’t get in the same room together, we were a little bit hesitant because it seemed like it might be conducive to overthinking the music or making it feel less sort of organic, but what wound up happening is that we were able to analyse our own music in a way that we hadn’t before and perhaps counterintuitively, that means that a lot of our songs, we were able to step back from them and make them not unnecessarily complicated. Whereas, when you’re in the practice room jamming, it’s easy to say we’ve got the chorus in the song three times, every time it should do something different going into the chorus and out of the chorus and there should be a change in each chorus. There’s something about being able to see the music on the screen and to hear the demons you are looking at that music and to realise that maybe, we’re overcooking it, maybe it just needs to go from the verse of the course and that’s powerful, and that wound up happening on this album. I think that having that level of understanding of what we’re doing allowed us to actually offer collaborative feedback in a more thorough way, rather than having to get in a room and teach each other parts, or try to vocalise how you think the drums should go, or the guitar harmony go, so being able to have it demoed out you can share it with everyone, then everyone can sort of tweak their parts and it just allowed us to work more efficiently, which means that when we were in the room together, we got to do the most satisfying stuff, which is playing through these songs and really figuring out how they feel instead of just trying to get them together.

We had already done the sort of heavy lifting of assembling these bigger ideas and now it’s all about polishing and tightening up and getting them to be the best Khemmis songs they can be. I think the other thing that we learned from this record is that given the time in the studio, we can make the studio experience feel like an extension of the writing process, rather than having distinct chapters in the creation of an album. You write the songs, then you demo the songs, then you record the songs because working with Nuclear Blast, we had the luxury of spending quite a lot of time in the studio.I think overall, we were in the studio for six weeks for this record and that allowed us to change how we recorded and to enjoy recording rather than thinking of ourselves as being on the factory line, sort of stamping out heavy metal song. I can say personally, I’ve never enjoyed being in the studio as much as I did this time where moments of inspiration would come to us and we have the time and resources to, to pursue them. Really being able to let these songs continue to take shape as we were in the studio and seeing, on the other side of it, just how satisfied we are with the result and how exciting it is to sort of trace their evolution from the earliest moments as guitar pro demo all the way through to the album you hear right now.

E&D: Is that a the way you’d work again in the future if you could?

Ben: Yeah, I think like anything, we learned that we have these avenues of approaching writing and recording that we hadn’t pursued, but also it reminded us that at the end of the day, the most important element in this music is the human element, so we can get all of these ideas together and we can get really into the nitty gritty of demoing out these complex arrangements with multiple guitar layers and what have you, but the real test is when you get the band together in the room and you crank up and you trust yourself and you trust the other people in that room with you to figure out if it feels right. That has always been the most important thing for us, these songs feel right because they feel compelling. Do they feel like they make sense? Do they feel like they take you on the kind of journey that we think they need to take you on? A lot of that is really hard to discern in the earliest stages of demo, which is why the idea of writing it all remotely, and then just recording it. I don’t think would ever work for us. We always have to get in there and sort of feed the data into the machine and see what comes out and what needs to be modified and what needs to be tweaked one way or another in order for it to feel like it is a product of not only collaboration, but a product of love and respect among the three of us.

E&D: You recently covered ‘Down In A Hole’ by Alice In Chains for a single, how has your version being received and what made you pick that particular track to cover?

Ben: When you cover any classic song of any style, there’s always going to be people who want to hear the original. I love the original, Dirt was one of my favourite albums. When Magnetic Eye records approached us about being part of the Dirt Redux project, my one stipulation was we would do it, but it had to be ‘Down In A Hole’. It is my favourite Alice In Chains song, they gave us the go-ahead and I have been over the years, sort of daydreaming about Khemmis covering this song and here and there, I had demoed out ideas for it. When the offer came through, I talked to the guys, I said, look, I have a bunch of ideas for this already and brought it to the guys. We worked through it together and what we wanted to do was to do what I think we’ve done. I hope we do, which is to not make it so unrecognisable that you couldn’t tell the original but also to not play it straight, because if you put it too straight, then it’s basically karaoke. You can get that at the pub on a Thursday night, and you want to put your own stamp on it. You want to make it yours. For us, that meant adding, these elements that make it sound like Khemmis. We were just blown away by everyone’s responses to it. When the people that love the original, see what you’re trying to do and love that for what it is and don’t think that you’re trying to erase the original, like, that’s the point. There’s  always going to be the original and if we just played it like that, that wouldn’t be honouring the original. So, adding the little harmony lines, adding a little bit here and there that’s how we put our sort of twist on the song.

E&D: How did your show at Psycho Los Vegas go and are you looking forward to hitting the road again with this new material?

Ben: It was absolutely phenomenal. There were so many moments over the last couple of years where a lot of us who are working professional musicians that aren’t making the big bucks and rely on touring to exist. There have been a number of times where 1, we were worried if we can all make it through this financially and 2, what happens if the pandemic kills off these independently owned venues that we rely on not only to, to make a living, but to just do what we do to make this art. For our first performance back to be at Psycho Las Vegas, in the House Of Blues to a packed room, and just to see it packed front to back, and the roar that just erupted from that crowd when we walked out on stage, I mean, being on stage is my church. That is where I feel connected to something greater than myself. That is where I feel affirmed in the very core of my existence. There were a lot of moments where I wasn’t sure if this was going to come back to be part of our lives, so the absolutely overwhelming joy and gratitude that I felt when that roar erupted and when we launched into the first notes, just seeing peoples faces, you see their eyes light up when we opened with ‘Above The Water’ and  even with masks on seeing people, you can tell they’re singing along because they’re singing so hard, their masks are moving. It was life affirming and empowering and the most beautiful way. We would already be excited to have more shows coming anyway, but that really was a clear reminder that there’s something special that we have been able to establish with our fans and that every time we get to perform, not only for them, but with them, because a good show is only as good as the band and the crowd together, that’s what makes the show memorable. We’re going out to on the road for a couple of weeks in January, and depending on how things work out, hopefully making it back over at least to the UK in April for Desertfest, maybe more, we’ll see, but to just have those on the horizon is so exciting and really gives us a lot of hope, that is very necessary at this moment in human history.

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