To say that Denver, Colorado doom-mongers Khemmis have had a productive few years is a bit of an understatement. Formed in 2012, the band released their debut album Absolution in the summer of 2015 to almost universal praise, even landing a coveted top-ten ranking in Decibel Magazine‘s yearly top forty albums list that year. A scant fifteen months later, the band issued their sophomore effort Hunted, a beautiful, epic musical journey that deftly combines ponderous, mournful atmosphere with triumphant, headbang-inducing, Maiden-esque riffs. Decibel Magazine once again recognized Khemmis’ work in their year-end review, this time with a slightly more prestigious honor. We caught up with the band via e-mail to chat about Hunted, the pressure of writing second records, the mystical powers of the Beer Wizard, and more…
Hunted snagged the top spot of Decibel Magazine’s Top 40 Albums of 2016. Congrats! How does it feel to be part of a club that includes the likes of Carcass, Converge, Agalloch, and Horrendous (who also won the honour with their sophomore record)?
Thank you. It’s pretty special just to make that list, honestly. None of us imagined that possibility when we started playing together. That both of our albums have been included in the end of year list by Decibel, and for Hunted to be voted number one, is really an amazing honour. We hadn’t thought of it in the “club” context, but, now that you’ve framed it that way, we’re very thankful to be in such great company.
Your debut album Absolution also received a lot of well-deserved critical praise. Did that praise influence how you approached writing Hunted? Did you feel any pressure to meet a certain critical expectation?
We knew what we wanted to accomplish on album two before Absolution was released. By the time we finished recording our debut, we had a good idea of what we were capable of achieving on the next one, so we set forth with a fairly clear set of songwriting goals. As the recognition for Absolution grew, we realized that there were lots of expectations about album #2. That said, we had placed our own bar pretty high; it was more important that we focus on our own standards rather than try to just write Absolution pt. 2. There were a couple of times when we looked at each other and said, “Whoa, we better crush this album.” But we are aware that we can’t control the expectations or the response, so we just focused on making the strongest possible album that reflected our collective tastes.
What I love about the new record is that it isn’t a giant departure from Absolution, and instead focuses on that album’s strengths and builds on them. Hunted sounds more nuanced and powerful. While the songs are longer, they feel more concise. Was this just the result of your natural progression as musicians or did you have a particular goal in mind ? Were there any new sounds, ideas, or other bands that specifically influenced Hunted?
That’s so great that you hear the album that way; it is honestly very close to our mindset when making it. Zach (drums) had said several times when we were writing Hunted that this album would just be “more”. More of everything. In this case, “more” could be mean more mature, more concise, more organized, more thought out; and we think we accomplished a lot of that with this record. Though the idea of elevating what we were doing to the next level was very intentional, our progression as a band made it possible to focus on that goal. As far as new influences… not really — still Sleep, Iron Maiden, Thin Lizzy, YOB, and ZZ Top.
While the imagery of Hunted appears to focus on epic fantasy, some of the lyrics, especially on tracks like “Above the Water,” seem intensely personal. Can you talk a bit about your lyrical inspiration for the record?
It is interesting that you say that. Phil’s lyric-writing style on this record was inspired primarily by artists like David Bowie and Tom Waits; songwriters who often use metaphor and allegory to build narratives that read like short fantasy stories, but touch on subject matter grounded in their lived experiences and fears. The songs on Hunted follow a narrative rooted in dreams Phil has had since childhood that were often prophetic, but simultaneously terrifying and illuminating in their meaning and content. It is probably most transparent on “Above the Water” and “Hunted” what exactly the dreams mean to him.
The artwork for Absolution and Hunted, along with your merch, features a Gandalf-like wizard with an epic white beard. In your recent Decibel interview, you confirmed that he is the official Khemmis mascot and is called “The Beer Wizard.” Where did the Beer Wizard come from? What are his special powers?
Sam Turner, the mastermind behind the art for both albums, drew our first t-shirt design. It was the wizard pouring a Coors into a chalice. It was a great image, and so well done, we always thought it represented us really well. We’re beer drinkers (and some of us even make the stuff for a living). We added vacuum tubes to his staff for the Absolution cover and now he’s a drunken master of guitar tone—the perfect mascot for us. Special powers: He can kill a yak from 200 yards away…with mind bullets! That’s telekinesis.
With the positive reception of Hunted must come increased offers for tours, yet outside of a few January dates and an appearance at the Decibel Metal & Beer fest in Philidelphia this April, it seems you guys are sticking close to home. Are there plans to tour more extensively in 2017? Important follow up question: when the hell are you coming to Montreal?!
A couple of really nice tour offers have popped up recently. It is really a great compliment when people are excited to see you play their town, and even more so when some of your heroes ask you to tour with them. But, because we all have jobs and families that we care about, our time on the road is limited. We are making a serious effort to take advantage of good opportunities, and that will likely translate into more touring in the future. In fact, we will announce more dates on the road in the coming weeks. As far as Montreal: Maybe you can make some calls on our behalf? Maybe see if Heavy Montreal wants to fly us in for the next iteration?
Both of your LP’s were released via 20 Buck Spin, a label that seems like a natural fit for you guys considering they count bands like YOB, Pallbearer, and Graves at Sea among their alumni. How did your relationship with 20 Buck Spin begin?
Zach had a good working relationship with Dave Grave, Lord of the Label. 20 Buck Spin had released Zach’s previous project (Vasaeleth) on vinyl, so he reached out to Dave after we’d finished recording Absolution. The label’s roster is incredible, so we were extremely excited when he said that he wanted to work with us. We can’t think of a better home for Khemmis than with 20 Buck Spin. Dave is so supportive and super fair; it really is a great relationship.
I think a lot of fans, me included, were surprised that Hunted was released only one year after Absolution. How long did it take you to write the new record? Were the ideas for the songs on Hunted kicking around during the writing of Absolution?
They were on the tip of our tongues, as they say. There wasn’t much of a gap between recording Absolution and working on new tunes. In fact, we started working on the title track of the new album immediately after we wrapped up recording our debut. Since we recorded Absolution in November 2014, there was quite a bit of time between leaving the studio and the album’s release date. A year and half between albums seems like a nice pace for us. It allows us to play some shows and enjoy other things in life without causing the creative process to stagnate. The third album might be a little farther out, but who knows? We’re working on it.
What are Khemmis’ plans for 2017? Will we see LP #3 sometime next year?
It’s possible, but unlikely, that Khemmis III will arrive in 2017. We have some ideas kicking around already, but want to focus on this album cycle for a while. We have a couple of other cool releases in the works that’ll be announced in the coming months that will see the light of day in 2017. We think people will be pretty excited about them, but we can’t spill the beans just yet.
The Bucketlist question: The Beer Wizard has granted you the arcane ability to host a fantasy concert, featuring a line up of bands, living or dead, that you have always wanted to share a stage with. Who does that line up include?
Phil Lynott fronted, Black Rose-era Thin Lizzy.
ZZ Top just after releasing Tres Hombres.
Written and Compiled by Jesse Gainer
*edited by Kate Erickson