Colorado metal outfit Khemmis has written a love letter to rock n’ roll with the release of their new EP, Doomed Heavy Metal, out now via Nuclear Blast (order here). We caught up with vocalist/guitarist Ben Hutcherson to discuss the record, the overall experience having their European tour postponed, and dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic while struggling with mental illness, and more. Following the discussion, we also took note of Ben’s dog, Daisy Mae, who’s been recently diagnosed with lymphoma. A GoFundMe page was launched to help his dog beat cancer, which you can donate here.
With Doomed Heavy Metal, what made you create a mini record over a full length?
It was the sort of thing where we had the tracks laying around. We’re currently writing for the next album, but we had actually Dave from 20 Buck Spin was the one that proposed it. He said, “Look we’ve got the flexi track that we recorded for Decibel in 2017.” He’s like, “We have the cover A Conversation With Death, that sort of reworking of the old Appalachian folk song. What do you guys think about doing some sort of special release that isn’t just throwing these songs on a seven inch or something?” We talked about it and it was right around the time we were about to do a special event here in Denver we called Two Nights of Doomed Heavy Metal. What we did for that was we did two shows in town and one night we played our slowest doomiest songs. Then the next night we played our most relatively uptempo songs to really show the two sides of what this band is. For quite awhile we haven’t thought of ourselves in terms of being a doom band in most ways. Absolution was a fairly doomy record, but even by the time you get to Hunted, we were trying to play with the tropes of the genre quite a bit.
Experimenting more with relatively uptempo songs, things like “Three Gates” and really leaning more into our classic influences whether they are Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Mercyful Fate or second wave black metal or old school death and thrash, whatever. We had recorded those two shows with the help of our longtime producer, Dave Otero, as well as our friend Chris Lemos who plays in a fantastic doom band called Church. We had live material as well. Dave floated the idea of doing some kind of special release. We thought about it for a little bit and what won us over or pushed us to do it was the fact that we love ZZ Top’s Fandango record and in fact for many years now, Zach has had a ritual on Fridays called Fandango Friday. He listens to the record top to bottom and he got all of us doing it as well. So when we’re on tour, every Friday at some point we put that record on. When we’re by ourselves at some point in the day the four of us are going to listen to it. It’s a nice ritual. It’s a nice reminder of our shared time together. That record is so weird because you’ve got a couple of studio cuts, a couple of B sides as it were, and then you’ve got some just totally wild, raw, unfiltered ZZ Top. I personally find that very endearing because for a lot of bands there’s a tendency to hide behind the sort of safety of the studio because you can do take after take and edit after edit until something’s perfect.
I think the real test of a band is what they sound like live and there are lots of really bad live albums out there. There are lots of live albums that are obviously doctored out there and that ZZ Top record is not doctored. There are some mistakes. Well, I’ll say it doesn’t sound like they’re totally sober and I find that really endearing because it feels like you get to connect with those three wild and crazy Texans when you listen to that record.
We were talking about it and we were like, “What if we put out essentially our version of that?” We’ve got these hard to find songs. “A Conversation With Death” was only on a limited physical release, a seven inch split. We did Spirit Adrift, a couple of hundred copies exist and that’s it. Empty Throne was on a flexi for Decibel and if you didn’t subscribe to Decibel, you probably never even heard that song. We had these live songs, but we didn’t want to do just a live album because we felt like that wasn’t as compelling. If Fandango is at least in some way a sort of love letter to ZZ Top’s fans and a sort of glimpse into who they are in their most unfiltered state, we wanted to offer the same sort of thing to our fans and that’s where Doomed Heavy Metal comes in.
Are you planning on working on a full length after this?
Yeah, we’ve already been working on our next full length album for a couple of months now. We started writing in earnest probably in, I don’t remember if we started writing before we went out in December, but at the very least late December. We were at it pretty routinely once or twice a week. Our practice sessions tend to last three, four hours. We were making some pretty good headway until we found ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic and that has certainly slowed things down. Now what we’re doing is building up raw materials. I’m doing a lot of writing, Phil’s doing a lot of writing, and what we do is we’ll demo out ideas and put them in a shared Dropbox folder so that when we’re able to all get together, we can pick and choose the ideas and try to put things together and put these ideas through the chemist filter that exists when the four of us are in a room together. The plan was originally, and hopefully life returns to some kind of normal soon enough that we can stick with this plan. The plan is to be in the studio about the end of the year and see a release on Nuclear Blast Records. It’ll be our first release totally on Nuclear Blast sometime next year between March and June depending on obviously when we’re all allowed to be in the same room again.
What was your decision to cover Dio’s “Rainbow in the Dark?”
Dave from 20 Buck Spin, said we should do something to make this release extra special. You guys want to write a new song? We’re like we cannot write a new song and by itself go in, record it, and have it together for this release when we were talking about what the timeline for this release would be. What we could do is work up a cover and we’ve generally not done covers. We’ve done a few live over the years. We’ve done Dragging Off by Sleep. I can’t remember. We did a Motorhead song, maybe we did Overkill? We’ve done ZZ Top years ago for Halloween. We played a show and our encore was to go out and do Waiting on the Bus and Jesus Just Left Chicago. Those things were all fun. If we’re going to do a cover, we want to do something that isn’t a reworking of an obscure song. We did that with the Conversation With Death and that’s cool, but we wanted to do something again that was a love letter to heavy metal. In a sense, that’s what this release is. It’s a love letter to our fans and to heavy metal and to what heavy metal has meant to us. I mean I can’t think of anyone more heavy metal than Ronnie James Dio, one of the most amazing vocalists and one of the most outright heavy metal dudes to ever live who embraced and embodied all the stuff that I think is so amazing about heavy metal. The energy, the fantasy and the drawing power from it. This is a classic song and we wanted to find a way to make it our own, but also pay tribute because if you rewrite a Dio song, you’re going to piss more people off than you’re going to win over. So we’re like, What would it sound like if Khemmis wrote “Rainbow in the Dark?” We tried to approach it with that mindset. So no keyboards, we don’t have keyboards. It’s like, all right, harmonize guitar lines. We got that. What would we do for the solo break? If you take that song and take Dio’s vocals away, it’s a pretty basic song. It’s got two parts over and over and over and that’s fine. If we wrote the song, we don’t write songs that are that simple. For better or worse, we have a tendency to try to take listeners on a longer journey musically as well as vocally. We thought we’ll rewrite the solo section, make it a little more uptempo. That seems like a thing we would do. Still paying tribute and trying to be true to the original. I think that that sort of balance is important when you cover someone else’s music. At the end of the day if someone loves Rainbow in the Dark, we hope that they’ll put our version on and at the very least understand why we covered it. Judging from the response online, it seems like a lot of people are really into it. So that’s how we wound up with this cover.
Your European tour was recently postponed, what was your overall experience going through this?
It’s been rough. This band doesn’t pay all of our bills, but it does pay a good amount of our bills. As is the case for lots of touring musicians. You live with the assumption that a tour that’s on the books is going to go down. When it doesn’t, suddenly you find yourself wondering like, “Okay, well what guitars can I sell? How can I pull together this income that seemed like a guaranteed thing?” We’re fortunate enough that again, we’re not all totally reliant on this band for income, but at the same time it’s stressful. It’s stressful to have to deal with losing shows, losing income. It’s not even just about the income. I mean like that’s a huge part of it. Don’t get me wrong, but being on stage is important to all of us. Sharing these experiences with our fans and bringing people on board with what we do as a band is so crucial to why we do what we do. To have that opportunity taken away is what’s really disheartening. I really appreciate the response of our fans who are very understanding and they say take care of yourselves. Stay safe, don’t get sick. Shit, I was really looking forward to these shows. We all were. Playing DesertFest was going to be really exciting. I’ve never even been to the UK so that was going to be cool. We’re working on rescheduling these dates now. It looks like this tour will probably happen in the early spring of next year and if everything goes according to plan, hopefully a separate tour will take place in Europe later in the year. At this point, who knows? Every day it seems like things continue to change.
It’s pretty scary out there and we don’t know what’s going to happen. What do you think the music industry will look like once this pandemic is over?
That is a really good question and I mean my first response is I can’t say with any degree of certainty. It could go any number of ways. I think the most likely thing, assuming that we don’t wind up with some new normal that involves semi-regular lockdowns because we can’t squash this virus or we can’t adapt medically in such a way to live with it. I think that my hope is that things will go back to normal in a lot of ways. I hope that people wash their hands better and it’s easy to make light of this, but dudes are gross and if I had a nickel for every time I’ve seen a grown man leave a bathroom without washing his hands, I would be rich. Those sort of practices that we spread disease more rapidly than we should otherwise. This is probably way too optimistic, but I really hope people have a greater sense of shared responsibility for the wellbeing of people around them. I think this is something we’re really struggling with in America, although a lot of other countries as well. This idea that the individual is entitled to do so much of what they want without repercussions and without concern for the wellbeing of people around them. I mean there’ve been some pretty outlandish claims by people saying that they would rather die than lose their freedom, which not only is that dumb but you’re also endangering the wellbeing of people around you. For instance in the world of heavy metal, Ozzy may not have a whole lot of time left, but if he got sick, that would crush a lot of people. I’m a huge fan of John Prine and it came out yesterday that he has fallen very, very ill as a result of COVID-19 and I never get to see John Prine. I’m going to be devastated if he dies before I’m able to experience his music live [Update John Prine sadly died after this interview]. I like to think at least some portion of the human race will be reminded that we don’t get through any of this on our own. No matter how much we think we do. So much of what we do day in and day out is dependent on other people. Whether it’s the ease with which we forget that our food doesn’t wind up on our table without other people. It doesn’t wind up in our car without other people. It doesn’t even want to be in our grocery cart without other people. Our loved ones or when we’re talking about ourselves, we don’t get better without the care of medical professionals. In this case, these people are putting their wellbeing and the wellbeing of their loved ones on the line to do their jobs. I hope that all of that means we see a newfound recognition of how fortunate we are to share these experiences together when we see live music.
Not just that I hope people wash their hands more. I think that’s a huge part of it, but that people will not take these things for granted. I think it’s easy to take the access to stuff for granted when it seems like it’s there all the time. When you’ve got concerts coming through your town every week and you feel like your cup overfloweth and you get to pick and choose who you get to see. Suddenly you’re not seeing anyone and there’s a chance that a lot of your favorite bands aren’t coming back after this either because they have members that are ill or because financially this just devastates them to the point that the risk they were taking to be professional musicians is no longer sustainable. At the same time I know that a lot of people, especially people in the service industry are going to be feeling the hurt as well. I hope that those of us creating the music recognize that our ability to go on stage and play music for people isn’t just dependent on our own hard work. It’s about the people at these venues, the people who own independent venues, people who are bartending, people who work door, and that we have to figure out ways to come together and support each other as a community. Not just during these times, but after these times because the ways in which this is going to reshape the world. I mean I can only guess, but we’re going to be seeing that play out for months if not years. I do like to think that we’ll see again at least some portion of musicians and music fans and people in the industry being more keenly aware of what we can do to support each other and how fortunate we are to even have these kinds of conversations.
I completely agree and hopefully it will get people to wash their hands and be more cautious and caring of other people, but I guess only time will tell. What have you actually been doing during this time of quarantine?
Going crazy mostly. Like a lot of musicians, I have mental health issues. I live with depression and anxiety every day and it’s the sort of thing that I’m generally able to manage fairly well. When the shit hits the fan and the things that I personally have taken for granted, the catharsis of band practice and playing music live combined with the anxiety around economic security. What am I going to do for money, combined with just not being around people. I’ve known for a long time I’m a social person, but I didn’t realize the extent to which that kept me balanced and grounded. God bless my wife has been amazing through this and very tolerant of my insanity. It’s been difficult in a lot of ways to remain grounded and remotely balanced and find some way to be productive every day. At the same time, I have found myself with a lot of access to my musical instruments that I don’t normally get because there’s only so many rooms in my house. I have been writing a lot. I’ve been working on my production shops. I enjoy recording bands. It’s something I want to get better at. I’ve had time to watch a lot of courses and practice with a lot of raw tracks. I’ve taken up the banjo. I bought a banjo a while ago and I figured what better time than now. The soundtrack to my insanity could just be the banjo. So that’s been fun. More than anything, just trying to remain productive, but to also remain aware of where I am in a given moment and recognize that if things are feeling dark or I find myself spiraling, open the door, get out of the office, talk to my partner, talk to the dog, step out in the backyard, whatever. I think that on the long list of things that I’ve taken for granted, the fact that I have this sort of awareness and I know I have mental health issues. I struggle with mental illness is something that is not true for everyone. There are plenty of people out there who perhaps have not been diagnosed or have been unwilling to seek help. I certainly hope that those people one way or another are able to during these trying times find the time and the space to take care of themselves because yeah, that shit’s hard enough just living a “normal life.” When the world turns upside down, it’s a thousand times harder.
Do you have anything else that you want to say or add to your fans?
I want to thank everyone who has already listened to the Dio cover, watched the music video, and everyone who’s preordered the album. That means a lot. In these uncertain times I know that not everyone has the money to buy an album, buy a shirt, whatever they normally would. We certainly understand that. So for those that are able to do so, we really appreciate that. That’s the stuff that allows us to continue doing what we do. If the harsh reality of being a musician in 2020 is that if you never make a dime from it, it’s hard to keep doing it.
It’s hard to create the time for yourself to do it. We really appreciate everyone that’s done that. We’re also really excited about this release even in the midst of a pandemic because like I said, it’s our love letter to rock and roll, to heavy metal and our fans. We hope that this release offers something to people, to new fans, and old fans that it offers them some kind of strength. I mean it sounds cliche, but the idea of a literal rainbow in the dark I think is something that a lot of people could use right now, myself included. We hope that these songs and this release is something that moves people, that they find compelling and motivating in their day to day lives.