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The previous albums ‘Absolution’ and ’Hunted’ from the American four-piece Khemmis were already a shot in a bull’s eye when talking about fervent heavy/doom metal. With the brilliant ’Desolation’, the band created the heaviest and most intense piece of work of all, chastened by rather negative personal experiences they had to face in their lives. We had a deep-draught conversation about that and their next steps to success with vocalist/guitarist Phil Pendergast.

By: Vera | Archive under doom metal

Hey Phil, we did an interview with Khemmis when ‘Hunted’ came out late 2016, so let us have an upgrade of things now when ‘Desolation’ is launched at the world… how are you doing?
Fine, thank you. It is still morning here in Colorado, foggy weather, but let us hope the sun will shine again like it did yesterday.

Congratulations, because for ‘Desolation’ you have inked a deal with Nuclear Blast!
Yes, they are not doing everything for us. We are still working with 20 Buck Spin who released ‘Absolution’ and ‘Hunted’ as well, here in the US. Nuclear Blast is doing the worldwide release. We are very excited to work with them, because we never had good distribution or PR in Europe or we did not do that much international interviews before. It is a huge difference and it makes it a lot easier for people in Europe to get hold of the album once it comes out. So it is really exciting.

Indeed, that is one of the important things to get recognition, that people can buy your albums and merchandising…
Yes and there is also another positive thing with Nuclear Blast. They have a good reputation, so people are willing to check out a band on that label just because they are on the label and we did not have any exposure of that before. So it is really an honour to be on that label. Now a whole new group of people will hear about Khemmis that otherwise never heard of Khemmis. We still have to see the results of course, but we are eager to find out. After ‘Desolation’ we have no idea what the future holds. We have no commitments with anybody. If Nuclear Blast is happy, we will stay with them.

But you do everything to gather more success I see, because after the release of ‘Hunted’ you managed to come over to Europe… for a small tour… what about this experience?
Important shows, because we played at Roadburn and at Doom Over Leipzig festival. It was so different from playing in the US, because the level of hospitality for bands is way much better and higher. We had places to stay and we were fed well before each show and that is not something common in the US. Also the fans seem to be super enthusiastic, as it was the first time we have been over there. They asked us about the records and talked about the show. That was very different. Especially the show in Leipzig, because we were playing in probably the best venue we had ever seen, it was a beautiful old theatre. Pretty amazing, since it was the last show on the tour and we already had an idea how special it was when we were doing the show. It was really a kind of powerful moment, to be and feel the history of the place. There is no legacy like that in the US, there is no venue old enough in terms of history and that was really unique.

What happened after the release of ‘Hunted’. Was there an overall good reception?
Yes, the reception of ‘Hunted’ was much better than we ever could have imagined. We were confident when going into the making of the album, we were a much better band than before and that we had written a better album. We took the strengths from ‘Absolution’ and tried to do it all better. That turned into a successful formula for ‘Hunted’. The receiving was very well, because Decibel magazine called it one of the best albums of the year and Rolling Stone put it amongst their favourite metal albums of the year and that was all incredible, because we never expected to be praised by Rolling Stone for instance. But then the time after ‘Hunted’ came out, we found ourselves pretty busy with the band, but also enduring a lot of changes and also kind of negative happenings in our lives that motivated us to make a kind of more aggressive sounding album next. When the time came to write ‘Desolation’, we wanted to channel a harder edge in our music and on top of that we were faced with a lot more expectations than we had with previous albums, but we took it as a challenge of doing something which we thought, was pretty different from the last two albums. It was much more aggressive and much more unique too I think. A wide range of different influences we inserted in the new album, yet it is probably the most cohesive and Khemmis sounding album, if you know us personally and what we personally like in music. It is the best reflection of us as a band I think. There was a lot that happened in that period which kind of shaped this vision for the new album.

Did it also have a reflection on the lyrics, of which you are the writer from?
Yes, Ben and I collaborated a lot more on the lyrics on this one than before. I used to be the one who did the majority of the lyrics, with the exception of the vocals Ben does, the harsh parts. It is important that we each write the parts we have to sing, so that we can emotionally deal better with singing them. On this record though I basically sketched out those rough wraps of lyrics of all of the songs, and put out the themes and then Ben and I worked pretty close together to kind of edit them. We all sat down together with the producer and went through all the vocal patterns I had come up with. If we needed to adjust something, we were all sitting there together. It was nice to have that collaboration, because there’s more vocals on this record than on passed ones, it was good to have some oversight. Out of necessity I had to wait almost until we were in the studio, before I wrote all the vocals. I definitely needed a different set of eyes and Ben was the person who gave me some help. It was a really nice process and I think they are the most straight forward and kind of personal lyrics that we had on albums so far and I feel totally good about that.

So the lyrics were an outlet for your personal issues…
Not only mine. Everyone in the band has experienced some really distinct challenges in their lives. It wasn’t like I was trying to write something autobiographical at all. It is about feelings I had or someone else in the band and I was trying to interpret them as my own. They are a reflection of all of us over the past year.

You notice already with the title ‘Desolation’ that it were hard times…
It was actually pretty hard to come up with a title for the album this time. In the past we just stumbled across a word and it seemed to fit, especially for ‘Hunted’ it was pretty obvious that this was going to be the title, but for ‘Desolation’ we had several album titles. Well, in a way desolation is almost the opposite of absolution, the name of the first album. One feeling is like salvation and the other gives a feeling of being alone and left with nothing. The correct expression of how we were feeling when we were writing the record. So a very fitting title…

Your clean vocals are really improved and very solemn and empyrean!
Thank you. Well, I am much happier with my vocals on this album than I was before. I never started singing before I was in this band, so it has been really fun to find out that I improve every time when we are in the studio. It is really fun trying to find a new vocal sound, experiment a bit and I am really happy about how it turned out. We used a new microphone for this album.

band image

And please keep the harsh vocals. It is a nice contrast with your serenity…
Oh yes, for sure! Also I think that Ben’s harsh vocals are way much better now than on the two previous records. Especially on ‘Maw Of Time’, the second last song on the album, towards the end they are super powerful and monstrous sounding. I am pretty impressed by his performance for sure.

Your global sound sometimes reminds me a bit of While Heaven Wept. Do you agree with that?
Oh yes. I think that is an interesting comparison. Do you know this band from Boston Only Living Witness? For whatever reason I always think that my voice sounds like the guy in that band. I actually have no desire to try to copy anyone’s sound, because I am really not any good at anything, except for this one thing that I have managed to do for Khemmis, so I am glad that my voice is coming over like one of the people I like the voice of. It makes me happy you say that.

’Isolation’ is put forward as single and you have made a video clip for it. How was that experience of making a video clip?
It was kind of strange, because we have never done that before. It was really fun, because the only part that we had to actively work on are the live performance videos. So we just invited some friends to our favourite local bar/venue and we just played the song live, maybe six or seven times. We just opened the bar tap for everyone and let them drink what they wanted, big fun! It was just like a fun time with friends and we did not bother about having perfection. We just played the song live like we should normally do on tour with all the possible small mistakes that go along with that and it became a sort of challenge to make it right for the video, but well… it was really fun. I do not have much involvement with the rest of the video and how it came together, but I think overall it has an interesting tone and it fits the music. We really did not have a masterplan. It was just a friend who reached out to do the video and so we are very grateful that we had someone who helped us doing that. We wanted something we could easily afford to do, because we do not have a big budget for it.

Some bands make almost a movie of it, but for Khemmis I think it fits better to present a spontaneous live performance than a polished movie exposure…
I think we have always succeeded as coming over as mainly a live band, that’s how we prefer to do it and we have another video coming out later this month for ‘Bloodletting’, the first song on the album. It is not like a music video the same way as this was, but Nuclear Blast hired someone who did a video for Opeth, their album ‘Sorceress’. He sort of animates the album artwork, with characters running around. And we just had another friend of ours coming to do a live video in our rehearsal space, that will be mixed in into this video and I think it actually turned out really cool. It is really simple, but I have always liked animated stuff.

I guess it will be psychedelic?
Not so much as the one for Opeth. It goes more in the direction of the movie ‘Heavy Metal’ from the eighties.

By the way, your artwork is always beautiful and so detailed!
All credits for this go to Sam Turner who is the artist we work with. He always manages to raise the bar just a little bit. We had a pretty distinct vision for what we wanted and he really exceeded our expectations of how it turned out, so that was really cool. I really appreciate working with him, because he is so mindful to details, like you said. He can sneak lots of little interesting things into an image, you know. It brings me back to the fascination I had as a kid, looking at my dad’s records and just going into all the details. Like a Yes album cover… or like a Molly Hatchet album. It is really cool to have something like that, something we all wanted, a kind of artwork you can see a lot in and read a story, that is exactly what he achieves.

And what were your roots? What were the first albums you were confronted with in your youth?
I think – at least for me – all kinds of southern rock were probably the first things. My dad was really into that and I got really into that as well. Like The Allman Brothers, Little Feat, Blind Faith with Steve Winwood on vocals, especially with that one album. Classic rock too. David Bowie is my all time favourite, Neil Young, Tom Waits, stuff like that. For us as a band, some of the things are pretty true for all of us. We are more shaped as a band through classic rock, than by modern extreme metal. We always ended up seeing ourselves as being like a heavy rock band, but also trying to be a heavy metal band. We have never formed by with the intention of being a doom band. We just wanted to play soulful, slower heavy metal, because we are all huge fans of Judas Priest, Thin Lizzy, Iron Maiden and Mercyful Fate and we’ve always been kind of going to that of being our thing. People started it calling it doom and it kinds of fit, because of the pace and the emotional heaviness and over the time – especially with this new album – I think we resorted ourselves with that original intention of being just known as a heavy metal band. The same way that a band like High On Fire, I think a lot of people early on said it was doom or a stoner metal band, are now primarily seen as being a heavy metal band. Impossible to categorize it in any other way. I think that is really how we like to be seen, because that was our intention from the beginning. So I hope that ‘Desolation’ can help people see it that way. I think in the temporarily scene, there are not that many bands that sound like us. That has always been – not our goal necessarily – but something we try to find which is rather unique and try to occupy that space and it will continue on further albums with other influences we had, so that we can explore that sound in different ways. On this album we sort of embrace more death metal and sometimes black metal type of passages and I think maybe on future albums we might go further in that direction… or… who knows. We might as well go the opposite way. We might end up with something really sludgy. I think we have the freedom to do any of that.

To occlude: what are the plans for the near future?
We are going to Maryland Deathfest this month and this is something we are really excited about. It is the oldest metal fest in the US. Later next month we are doing some album release shows in Chicago and LA. Soon after that we are going to Pittsburgh for Migration Fest, which is a smaller festival that our label 20 Buck Spin is putting on. Then we go to a huge fest Heavy Montreal which is taking place every year and that will be interesting, checking out the contrast with the European festivals we had. When the album is out, we will see which opportunities will arise later this year. With the signing with Nuclear Blast, we hope to see more interest of people wanting to bring us over to Europe. We will see what happens!

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