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KHEMMIS's Ben Hutcherson Dives Deep Into Dio, ZZ Top and the Love Letter that is 'Doomed Heavy Metal'


Denver's own Khemmis have received no shortage of praise from fans and critics for each of their past three epic albums. Now, amidst the COVID-19 crisis, the band is set to unload Doomed Heavy Metal, a collection of rarities, live tracks and a very special cover of Ronnie James Dio's "Rainbow in the Dark".

Guitarist Ben Hutcherson caught up with Metal Injection to talk band/fan optimism during the crisis, doing justice to the pillar of metal that is Dio, his seminal metal influences and much more!

On Coping with COVID-19

You're trying to say positive, right? You're trying to recognize the fact that we don't have control over the situation. And so you got to try find the good or least the less shitty and maximize it. But it certainly is frustrating to not be able to support a release in a traditional way. I mean, we knew for a while that the European tour wasn't gonna happen. We've got some other dates that have already been postponed. We've got some stuff in the fall that hopefully is going to happen? But, you know, we're not even going to announce until it's for sure going to happen. No point in getting people riled up and then not be able to go and do those tours. So yeah, it sucks. It's not ideal in any capacity. But at the same time it's a new releases that we are excited about it.

It sounds really cheesy, and we certainly didn't expect times to be so dark, but having "Rainbow in the Dark" as the single (off of Doomed Heavy Metal), a lot of people have found meaning in that. We weren't like oh! Maybe if things get really shitty we can offer a bright thing! We covered a song that we love. And it just happened to be thematically appropriate to the state of the world.

On Support From Fans

We were certainly flattered, floored and overwhelmed by the support from our fans with the bandcamp thing. We had a personal stock of Desolation vinyls that are only available from us and we thought we'll throw these out. We know that a lot of our fans work in the service industry and in the music industry, so they aren't going to have the excess money that they might otherwise have to buy a record or whatever. We sold out of everything we put up online. And I know a lot of bands had the same experience.

I think it's easy for people to either assume that bands are further along in their career than they are. They assume that 'you guys must be rolling in the dough', which is not true of almost any band. But also assume that every band has like a steady day gig and neither one of the scenarios is true for most bands. A lot of us are reliant more or less on our band income to make ends meet. Some of us have full-time day jobs and some of us don't. Some of us work gigs here and there trying to pull it all together. So having the sort of broader metal community, and just the music community more broadly, sort of doing everything they can to keep everyone afloat has been pretty powerful.

On ZZ Top Influencing Doomed Heavy Metal

Really our biggest inspiration for this release is ZZ Top's Fandango!. It's a collection of singles and live tracks. I don't think ZZ Top had it in their head when they put that out there that this is going to be a stand out release in their catalogue. What they were doing was getting rare songs available to people that had otherwise not been available to people. And then the live stuff, I think is interesting because there's a long history of really shitty live records, either because they're poorly played or because they've been redone in the studio. And there's something about those ZZ Top tracks that are raw and are obviously not overly polished. In fact, I think it sounds like they're probably not totally sober when they're playing most of those songs. But it's a snapshot of where that band was. And especially now, those guys are in their 70s. You listen to that and those guys are young and they're fired up, and it feels good to listen to that release.

Zach has a sort of ritual called Fandango Friday, and he listens to that record every Friday, and he got all of us doing it, too. So like when we're in the van every Friday, at some point we're gonna play Fandango!. And I think one of the things that's cool about it is it's almost like a love letter to rock and roll, to blues and to their fans. It's not a hyper polished thing. It's not them trying to do anything other than say, we are ZZ Top and here we are in our most organic form. And when you think about Fandango!, you think about how unique that kind of release winds up being and we wanted to do the same sort of thing for Khemmis.

KHEMMIS's Ben Hutcherson Dives Deep Into Dio, ZZ Top and the Love Letter that is 'Doomed Heavy Metal'

We had these live tracks and we're like, we want to do the same sort of thing, to offer this sort of special release that is not in the same vein as our full lengths, but it is a thing unto itself. It's a glimpse at who we are. And for the live stuff, especially, there are a lot of people – especially in Europe – who haven't got to see us and won't get to see us for a while, maybe a few months. Maybe we're never allowed to leave the house again. And so I like the idea of being able to show people this is what we're all about. This is what it's like to see a Khemmis show. We're trying to play every show like we're trying to sort of preach to a new bunch of unconverted fucks the gospel of heavy metal.

It is a love letter to heavy metal. Like, why do we love heavy metal? We love it because it's raw and energetic. It can be well done without being hyper polished. And this is our way of saying, here's our take on all the things we love about heavy metal.

On Paying Homage to Dio

It took us a while to figure out what we were going to cover because we didn't want to take something and deconstruct it and then rewrite it. And we'd done that with "A Conversation with Death", and we were very pleased with how that came out. We wanted to do something different. We don't really like to do the same thing twice if we can avoid it. And at the same time, we didn't want to just play it straight because a totally straight cover is just karaoke and like who gives a shit? There are so many boring covers out there where the band nailed the instrumentation and it sounds just like the original and I just don't care. Maybe my favorite cover at least of a heavy metal song of all time is Cave In's cover of "N.I.B.", because they keep the heart of that song, but they really make it their own.

I like that idea of how do you find the balance between being true to the idea of the original, but making it your own. Those were sort of the parameters when we were trying to figure out what we wanted to cover. And when it came to "Rainbow in the Dark", we were like, look, this is a classic song, but it's also a very simple song. What would it be like if we wrote it? If you take away Dio's vocals there's like two parts in the whole song and they just go back and forth and that's fine. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that, but we don't know how to write a song that only has two parts. We took it upon ourselves to think about it in terms of how do we do something that we are proud of but that also makes it clear why we're covering this song? It's because we love this song. We love Dio.

Dio is in that pantheon of the all-time greats. He embodied the stuff that I love about heavy metal. He was unabashedly sort of honest and emotional about the power of music. And for him, that came out in fantasy based lyrics and fantasy based imagery. But it was genuine and it was authentic and it was not just for himself. He was sharing it with everyone. Like anyone who's ever listened to Dio has been, I think, better because they listened to Dio. They felt better. Hopefully they did something better with that day of their life. But that's all wrapped up in this dude who sang this song about a rainbow! We wanted to convey that. I think this song means a lot to us, and hopefully our version can contribute to that legacy. No one's ever going to replace Dio. That'd be silly, and that certainly wasn't our intent.

On the Evolution of Khemmis

When we started out I think we, without meaning too, got away from the idea of a doom band pretty quickly. In fact, "The Bereaved" was the first song we wrote where we went, oh, so that's kind of what we are. There's a lot of emotion in it, there's a big soaring feeling in parts and there's guitar harmony. And even in that moment that song is pretty "doomy," but I think you can hear glimpses of not only what we have continued to try to refine, but you can hear bits of our influence. You can hear the little bits of proto or trad metal, your Iron Maiden or your old school Judas Priest, stuff like that. And I think as time has gone on, one thing that we've grown in is our comfort with embracing all of our influences.

I would totally get that most people would not hear ZZ Top, but if you go and you listen to the Hunted record and you listen to the way Zach has structured the drums on that record, there's a lot of swing on that stuff. Straight ZZ Top and Thin Lizzy, too. Even though we have a fairly large set of shared influences, we all bring our own sort of versions of that. Phil and Zach were both very heavily influenced by Thin Lizzy, but the way that influence manifests for both of them is pretty different. So when you get those two things together, we're all influenced by Metallica, but the way that I'm influenced by Metallica is going to be different than the way Dan or Phil is. And as time has gone on we've all felt more comfortable not only exploring those shared influences, but just being sort of honest about what influences each of us and allowing that to come through, whether it's second wave black metal or country music or 70s hard rock.

On His Heavy Metal Influences

It's definitely Metallica. My older brother gave me The Black Album when I was like, I don't know, ten or twelve. I distinctly remember the experience of hearing it for the first time. And that seems mundane to us now. It's like, oh, The Black Album? Oh, really, bro? That's where you started? Fuckin' Yeah, that's where I started. Like, if you had handed me Altars of Madness at age eleven, I couldn't have stomached it. First time I heard Morbid Angel I was like, I don't like this. The first time I heard Immortal I was like, what is this crocodile voice? What is happening? I don't like it. I had to get there over time. So it was Metallica, The Black Album. Master of Puppets was the next one, and that was like on the cusp of being too heavy. But I was like, OK, I think I like this. Pretty quickly it was all Metallica and then it was Slayer and Pantera and then it was 80s thrash. From Slayer and Kreator it just exploded to every kind of extreme outfit.

When I started finding stuff that really spoke to me it was when I discovered Neurosis and it's not to say I don't still love all the death and black metal and grindcore. I absolutely do. But that was life changing for me because it challenged a lot of assumptions I had about what heavy metal was. And I know a lot of people might even argue Neurosis isn't a metal band per say, and that's fine. So maybe even more broadly, what heavy was. The idea that heavy didn't have to be blast beats, didn't have to be growls, that heavy could be feeling.

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