Interview with vocalist/guitarist Ben Hutcherson  | By Nicholas Senior

They say those who can’t do, teach. Well, that’s horse caca, and Khemmis’ incredible third album is a mighty compelling argument against it. Desolation, out June 22 via 20 Buck Spin, feels like a dissertation on what has made decades of heavy metal so memorable and bewitching. Each of the record’s six songs contains numerous instances that hit the listener in the gut, neck, and that special spiritual place that only transcendental art can tap into. The riffs, melodies, solos, and, most importantly, impeccable arrangements feel tailor-made for timelessness.

Vocalist and guitarist—and PhD candidate in sociology—Ben Hutcherson has spent many moons thinking about, researching, writing, and performing heavy metal. However, the Denver band’s latest batch of sonic excellence is far from a stuffy exercise in mathematical precision. That is due, in part, to the group’s collective comfort and maturity. “This album is certainly the moment where we are comfortable with this general notion of what Khemmis is and what Khemmis can sound like,” he explains. “As a result, our aim was to dive into some different influences and to push the boundaries of the band in ways that we couldn’t before, because we are not only more confident in what this band is, [we’re] more confident and comfortable with each other. We’ve always had a pretty strict approach where if it’s not landing with everybody, then we don’t use it. Now, we’re at a point where we’re able to hear each other’s ideas out more fully.”

Desolation carefully spreads Khemmis’ creative vision, crafting a darker and more menacing version of the group’s melodic identity. There may be a reason to be angrier and more pissed than a few years ago… “Totally! Human beings are social creatures and are shaped by their social environments,” Hutcherson says. “It was late spring, early summer last year when we really started putting these songs together, and we found that, collectively, we were in a darker headspace. You can’t ignore what’s going on in this country and around the world, but also, the things that we’ve been through individually. It has been a real tough couple of years for us as living, breathing people.”

“One of the things that Khemmis has done for the four of us,” he notes, “is act as a sort of ritual catharsis, whether it’s being onstage or even just being in the rehearsal space working on new material. We’re not just creating music; it’s really a kind of group therapy sometimes. Because we were collectively in that darker headspace, we were individually struggling with and working through a number of different things: experiences in our lives, lost loved ones. It just happened to be the case that when we came together to write the album, it just seemed like the natural evolution of the band to harness that feeling. Whereas there’s always been a darker undertone to this band, we’ve sung about loss and remorse, but there’s a little more vitriol to it now—[it’s] more venomous.”

Desolation delves into time and its effects on our collective souls. That’s no coincidence, as many in our society have had to grapple with existential despair and frustration much more in the past couple years. Hutcherson concurs, “I think also, as you get older, time takes on a different set of meanings than it did when you were young. It’s not necessarily that you feel like you’re closer to the endgame and you have to hurry or anything so dire. There is a stronger awareness of the limited amount of time we have in this world and trying to find out how to do something with it that’s worth a shit, whether it’s trying to make music or trying to make sense of the world as it exists around us.”

“It wasn’t like we sat down and wanted to discuss time,” he clarifies. “It came across as a natural byproduct of the sort of emotions we were trying to tap into and the way the lyrics needed to complement what was going on in the music. Not only that existential concern about time, but the experience of time itself. I feel like the older I get, the quicker the happy moments—the flashes of joy—go by and the more drawn-out the dark moments feel. Especially in the past couple years, there were a couple stretches where time had all but stopped, and you feel frozen in those bleaker stretches of time. I think we were playing around with the idea of time: how time shapes our attitudes of what we do with our lives and how it shapes the ways in which we think back on the good or bad things in our lives.”

Hutcherson’s education and research involves the sociological study of metal culture and history. So, has any of that research creeped into Khemmis or Desolation? “At this point in my life, I can’t really disentangle what I do academically with what I do musically, in part because I’ve been writing and researching about underground music for—shit, way too long at this point,” he laughs. “Being an academic who thinks and writes about music broadly, I do tend to write about metal mostly but music and art more broadly. That has certainly shaped how I think about and experience the creation side of music, but also, listening to it as a fan.”

“Those two are so completely enmeshed into who I am that I don’t know that I could say clearly ‘Is it the chicken or the egg?’ kind of thing,” he continues, “because music and art matter so much to me in both parts of my life, they have this effect where I’m fascinated in how they work academically, but it also causes me to listen to more music and think more about music and think about why music connects with me or with anyone in a given way. To some extent, subconsciously, that shapes how I create music. Not to break it down into some formula about how ‘This is how something should sound,’ but about how heavy metal shapes lives, creates friendships—people meet their partners through metal, and people dedicate their lives to this. I think more than anything, it pushes me to create something that resonates with people. Whether or not that actually happens is up to others.”

From an academic perspective, heavy metal has a particularly passionate following, and Hutcherson has his theories about why that is. “I think metal, for a lot of reasons, cultivates a sort of following or fanbase that is able and willing to offer up a part of themselves to be a part of that world in a way that listeners of other more popular music do not,” he postulates. “There’s a distinction between liking music and music being a part of you. I can’t speak to other music worlds, but in heavy metal, the way in which that manifests is really interesting. There are certainly people who are 24/7 lifers, and there are those like me who may not look the part but wear a dress shirt while listening to Ash Borer or YOB in any given moment.”

Part of this artistic disconnect is related to the realities of the market. Creating art rarely pays the bills, but that wasn’t always the case. “There was a time when society more broadly appreciated art and understood the importance of art in a well-balanced and well-developed society,” Hutcherson explains. “One of the things that would happen is the sponsoring of the arts by elite patrons, and that would free artists to create meaningful stuff without being beholden to making sure they had food on the table. They just had to make sure to make good art. That does kind of happen, though, because none of us make any goddamn money playing metal,” he laughs.

“For most of us, heavy metal does not pay all of the bills,” he elaborates, “and while that can be frustrating for [many] reasons, in a lot of cases, it does free you up to create something compelling without thinking about how many units you’re going to move or how you’re going to frame a PR campaign around this. By having this prioritization, I think the creators and most of the listeners are able to have a more complex and meaningful relationship with the music—and, through the music, with each other—than is the case in some other types of art.”

“I think that one of the things I’ve found as I get older is I’ve realized a lot of the things I was worried about when I was younger are totally not things to be worried about,” Hutcherson adds. “One of those was the corrupting or selling out of the underground. Also, part of it is, the older I get, the more willing I am to talk about it. I never talked about heavy metal as art when I was 22, 23 years old. Back then, I was like, ‘Fuck you, man! Morbid Angel is the best!’ Now, I think being willing to have a complex relationship with music, heavy metal, and allowing it to mean more than something that makes you want to mosh or whatever—I know what it feels like to have that revelation and allow music to be more than just music.”

While art can build lasting and profound personal relationships, it also has long been a conduit for a more spiritual connection. Hutcherson expands on that notion, sharing, “For me, that started when I was about 26 or so. I flew out with a friend of mine to San Francisco to see Neurosis for their anniversary show with YOB and U.S. Christmas. I’m not a godly man by any stretch of the imagination, but I felt connected to music and life that night in a way that I never had before. It really changed the trajectory of how I write and experience music. That was a big thing for me; that kept me from potentially going down a lot of darker avenues in my life. Why wouldn’t we want other people to have that same chance to feel connected to something or some people to feel like they’re part of something that’s a little bit dangerous? Sometimes, metal’s not as dangerous as it likes to think it is, but for a lot of people, the idea of heavy metal is tied to the devil or whatever.”

Ultimately, while Hutcherson spends untold hours researching, thinking, and writing about heavy metal, none of it matters if the music doesn’t connect with the listener. With Desolation, Khemmis have distilled everything about heavy metal’s past, present, and future into an album that feels like it will stand the test of time. Saying 2018 is the Year of Khemmis seems to diminish the record’s staying power. Hutcherson sums up the bare essence of why his band can so effortlessly captivate: “We can be hoity-toity about it and talk about the meaning and history of art, but at the end of the day, we’re just four dudes plugged into a bunch of amplifiers, singing and screaming about being alone in the universe and trying to make sense of being alive and what it feels like to be alone.”

“At the end of the day, it’s just heavy metal.”

Purchase Desolation here

Photo Credit: Alvino Salcedo

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