By: Aaron Pickford & Khemmis
As every second of every minute of every hour of every day expires, friends, partners, husbands and wifes, son daughters, will find themselves engulfed in the sonic waves and distorted noises of their favourite bands, perhaps listening to an album, creating the next killer riff or beat, or mastering the next greatest album. Indeed as the earth revolves, a revolution in the doom scene is emerging, once again, the slow dirge like riffs are saturating eardrums everywhere, captivating us not by the technical virtues of those that create it, but instead immersing us in a “tune low, play slow” aesthetic which in my eyes is the biggest and best genre there is.
Coupled with a resolute DIY ethic from both bands and labels alike, this dearth of magnificently creative and ultra heavy doom bands is beginning to cause the wider metal community to take notice. Indeed, one such band, emerged last year and pretty much crushed all their peers into dust, with their magnicificently powerful debut full length “Absolution”, that band is Khemmis and today they are our guests at “Amped & Doomed”. Let’s get the lowdown.
SL: Guys, today you’re undoubtedly fulfilling another dream on your bucket list, by talking to us here at “The Sludgelord” (haha). Would you be able to contain your excitement and give us a brief history of your playing career to date, specifically how long you have been playing with bands, when did you pick the guitar, bass etc?
Ben: I started playing about 18 years ago. My father’s side of the family has a longstanding history of playing music, and growing up with music in the house and at all of the family reunions made it inevitable that I would give it a shot as well. I started with the basics -- “Smoke on the Water,” “Stairway to Heaven,” and various grunge songs that I could struggle my way through. The turning point was really when I got into Metallica and (slowly) learned how to play the first five albums. I remember the first time that I (mostly) pulled off “Master of Puppets” -- I felt like I’d just won the Olympics. I’m about to turn 31, and playing guitar has kept me sane and also lead to meeting some of my best friends in the world. The day I stop playing is the day I am no longer physically able to play.
Phil: I’ve been playing for about 10 years. My first shows were with an otherwise all-girl Judas Priest cover band in High School. After that I played in a 2-piece that never really did anything except play some house shows, but that was what really got me started playing the low-and-slow. We sounded like a cross between Thou and Electric Wizard.
Dan: Haha, career. I started late. Some co-workers and I, after extremely long days of work, would joke about starting a band called Uncle Larry’s Bitch. The president of the company was named Larry. One day we decided, what the hell, how hard could it be? I bought a bass and a practice amp. My Dad played a little bass when I was a kid, and I thought Duck Dunn was super cool, the way he played and smoked a pipe. Bad ass.
SL: Can you remember who are what inspired you to pick up the guitar, bass? Are there any bands, guitarists, bassists currently on the scene that continue to inspire you and push you to try new things?
Ben: My father and my grandfather both made me want to be a musician. My grandfather taught himself to play the banjo, mandolin, fiddle, guitar, dulcimer, and more. He also built his own instruments. He was one of the most talented people I’ve ever met, and that informed my own desire to be a musician and, lately, to try my hand at refinishing guitars and low-level woodworking. My father always played guitar and sang to me when I was little, and he (and my kickass mom) both encouraged me to pursue music and push myself as a musician. Neither of them are metal heads by a long shot, but they have never stopped being supportive.
As time has gone on, I stopped thinking about “guitar heroes” as much as atmospheres that individual musicians and bands create by playing the music they genuinely feel. My interest in technical proficiency started to wane in my early-to-mid 20s, which is when I found myself drawn toward bands like Neurosis and YOB more so than, say, Necrophagist and Suffocation. At that same time, my taste in non-heavy music came full circle and I realized that the music my folks had loved and played for me as a child (e.g., Jethro Tull, Steely Dan, John Prine, Return to Forever, Yes) was actually REALLY awesome. Today, I am just as likely to throw on Pretzel Logic or Romantic Warrior as Through Silver in Blood or Primitive Man’s Scorn.
Phil: My dad listened to a lot of classic and southern rock, but I think the real eye-opener was David Gilmour’s super vivid tones on The Wall. I really wanted to be able to make a sound like that, just sustaining forever with so much power and beauty. J Mascis and Matt Pike are probably my favorite modern players, both guys just play with such conviction while also doing really interesting things with phrasing and tones.
Dan: See above, my old man and Duck Dunn. Others too. Curtis Mayfield’s bass lines were infectious. Fugazi basslines drove the song. John Paul Jones always held everything together. Taylor Iverson (of Abrams) doesn’t necessarily drive me to be better, although he is undoubtedly a way better bassist. I just really dig his bass playing, and his tone, and his demeanor. Good dude.
SL: Whilst we’re on the subject of inspiration or heroes for example, do you have 5 records that stand out as favourites, what influence did they have upon you and what is it about those records that particular resonates amongst others?
Mastodon – “Remission” - I saw them touring behind this with Soilent Green, Cephalic Carnage, and Dysrhythmia in ‘02 or ‘03. It blew my mind. I lived in small town
and had only recently gotten internet access at home. Finding out that this
kind of stuff was out there and moreover that there were people like me who dug
it, was an incredible moment. Mississippi
Slayer – “Reign in Blood” - My story with this is no different than anyone else’s. A friend had it. I borrowed it. 28 minutes after hitting play, my notion of how fast and aggressive music could be was completely destroyed. This opened up my ears to the worlds of black metal, death metal, and grindcore.
Neurosis – “A Sun that Never Sets” -- One of my best friends, Eddie (with whom I formed Galaxicon), gave me this album about a decade ago when I started losing interest in a lot of death and grind. It floored me. From there, I consumed their entire discography as quickly as possible. A few years later, we went to
San Francisco to see Neurosis, YOB, and USX at the . Neurosis opened with “Through
Silver in Blood” and I was so overwhelmed that I thought I might die of
sheer joy. Great American
Weakling – “Dead as Dreams” - During my freshman year of college, a guy who would wind up becoming one of my best friends turned me onto this album. I had never heard anything like it -- it genuinely frightened me.
YOB – “The Unreal Never Lived” - Much like with Neurosis, YOB changed my notion of what “heavy” could mean. If I had to point to one contemporary guitarist who has influenced my playing, it would absolutely be Mike. His sense of dynamics and his use of big, complex chord shapes blew my mind, since I’d spent years thinking only of how to tremolo pick faster, how many sweep arpeggios I could cram into a solo section, or how (unnecessarily) technical I could make riffs.
The Cure – “Disintegration”. Just pure emotion and sadness. Pornography is probably a better record but I discovered this one at a certain time in my life that makes it important.
Fugazi – “13 Songs”. Again, not, my favourite Fugazi album now, but the first one I heard and definitely changed the way I listened to music and thought about songs.
Jimi Hendrix – “Are you Experienced?” It’s fucking Jimi Hendrix, that’s why. I checked this out, on vinyl, from the public library when I was a kid. It blew my damn mind.
High on Fire – “Surrounded by Thieves”. Forever changed me. I missed “The Art of Self Defense” because, frankly, I wasn’t following metal closely in those days. I saw them come through Denver on this album, and it felt like the combination of everything I loved about metal, perfectly focussed into one bone crushing mass.
Queens of the Stone Age- “Queens of the Stone Age”. I was shocked when I heard this. I owned the Kyuss split and wasn’t that excited about this album… until I heard it, performed live, in 1999. It was aggressive and pretty at the same time. Driving bass without being fancy.
Phil: As far as what records influence my playing in this band, I would have to say 3 matter more than others: Thin Lizzy- “Black Rose”; Mountain- “Climbing”; and Sleep- “Holy Mountain”. I’ve always been attracted to players who play “from the gut” and find strength in their eccentricities, but who also have an ear for melody and restraint that lets the rest of the band shine.
SL: Can remember your first electric guitar, bass?
Dan: Made in Mexico Fender Jazz in electric blue
Ben: It was an Ibanez GAX 70 in transparent butterscotch (or something like that). My parents bought it and a little DOD amp for me once it became clear that I was hooked on playing guitar. It was a cheap thing, but it worked and was infinitely cooler looking than most starter-level guitars.
Phil: It was a made in Mexico Fender Telecaster standard, which I immediately retrofitted with a humbucker in the neck. Partially because I wanted that fat, singing sound, and partially because I wanted to be Keith Richards.
SL: Ok, more to the point, what guitar(s) bass (s) are you using today and how did you gravitate towards the guitar you currently use? What do you like about the guitars you currently use and have there been any specific modifications to them?
Ben: My main guitar in Khemmis is a Gibson Faded Flying V that I completely redid from the ground up. The only original thing about it is the body/neck. I sanded and stained it, replaced all of the hardware (locking Grover tuners, roller bridge, straplocks, graphite nut, new pots and knobs), and put a pair of Duncan pickups in it (Black Winter in the bridge, Sentient in the neck). It is my favorite guitar that I have ever played or even seen. I also have a Gibson Les Paul Studio, which was my first non-superstrat guitar after my interest in playing death metal wanted. That LP is HEAVY, but it sounds so very good. I have several other guitars, but those are the ones I regularly play.
We just hooked up with the good people at Lace Pickups, so I’ll be putting a pair of Lifers in the Flying V in the near future. I have a Lifer in the bridge of my Les Paul now, and it just smokes, man. It’s hot, but not unusably so, and it has a subtle midrange bump that sizzles and sounds awesome.
Phil: My number one for the longest time has been my Reverend Volcano H-90 Custom. I have always been a sucker for V-shaped guitars and I loved the offbeat looks of this thing, with the raised center section and asymmetrical wings. I am otherwise drawn toward heavy, offbeat vintage guitars and always seem to have a rotating cast of them for my backup. Currently that slot belongs to my ’82 Electra X-270, which is a very neat guitar with some built-in effects, but a Yamaha SG2000 jockeys for position.
I love to tinker with things so I always replace the pickups in my guitars right away. I am currently using the Lace Finger Burners in my Reverend, and Lace Hemis in the Electra. For me, playability and resonance is key if I am going to hold on to a guitar. I want the instrument to feel like a tuning fork when I’m standing next to an amp! The Reverend, especially, plays great and the electronics are laid out so that they don’t get in the way, which is huge for me because I have a really heavy hand and always find a way to roll off my volume or switch pickups by mistake during shows.
Dan: My main bass is a Lakland Skyline 55-64. I went after this one primarily because it’s a 35” scale 5 string. With our low tuning I was having trouble with all my 4 strings. The string tension sucked so the string would flop around no matter how thick I went, I couldn’t get them intonated, I couldn’t get any sustain... it was useless. The long scale remedies most of that. I focused in on the Lakland over other 5 string basses with long scales because it doesn’t have a damned battery compartment routed into it. I really like the stock passive pickups. It has great sustain and clarity on the low notes and it I really am a fan of the classic P bass style.
SL: What amps and pedals do you currently use? Do you use a combination of amps, or a full half stack? Talk us through your set up both in the studio and in the live environment?
Dan: I use the same rig live as I do in the studio. SLM-era Ampeg SVT Classic through a 1973-ish Ampeg 8x10 re-speakered with Eminence 10’s. There is a reason it’s the classic rock & roll bass rig. I am about to replace the 8x10 with custom Atlas made, 4x10 + 2x15. I’ve found that I can’t live without 15’s, nor can I live without 10’s, so I’m getting them both. Hail Petras: Lord of Tone. Pedal board: Dunlop Bass wah, Black Arts Revelation, Wren and Cuff Pickle Pie B Fuzz, DOD/Black Arts Boneshaker. I recorded “Absolution” with a Black Arts Tonewroks Ritual, on all of the time -- that was it.
Ben: My overall setup has been the same for a few years now. I occasionally get the urge to try out a new amp or dirt pedal, but I inevitably come back to where I started. I have an early 70s non-master-volume Ampeg V4 and a V2 (modded by a previous user with a master volume control, which I just leave dimed) from the same era. Those Ampegs are among the best pedal platform amps in existence, in my opinion. I run the Ampeg into an Orange 4x12 (loaded with Celestion V30s and WGS ET65s in an X pattern) and an Orange 2X12 (loaded with Eminence Wizards).
I use a Black Arts Toneworks Quantum Mystic for my dirt. I’ve been using BAT for my dirt tones for the last 4 or 5 years, and the QM is an unreal little box. It’s a little fuzzy, but is more of a distortion/OD on steroids. I rotate a number of other effects pedals in and out of my board, but right now am using a TC Electronic Polytune mini, a Morley Little Alligator, a Dunlop 95q wah, a Tech 21 Boost DLA, an Eventide H9, a Maxon PH-350 phaser, and a TC Electronic Alter Ego X4. I also use a Digitech JamMan stereo for triggering samples between songs and I use a TC Helicon Mic Mechanic to add echo and reverb to my vocals.
Phil: I’m primarily using a Black Arts Toneworks (BAT) Black Forest into my 1983 Carvin X-100b for all of my dirt sounds, but will occasionally run the Black Forest into a BAT Fnord for really sludgy sections or places where I need a little more volume. The Carvin is generally pretty cranked, and runs into both a 4x12 loaded with a mix of speakers that I like and a homemade 1x12, 1x15 loaded with an Eminence Wizard and Big Ben. Overall I need a fairly clear guitar sound with a bit of low end, super saturated mids, and some presence to compliment Ben’s growlier guitar sound, and the Carvin is a great platform for that.
While recording “Absolution”, I wanted a bit more of an “amp exploding/speakers tearing” kind of sound that still retained some clarity, so I went with a BAT Oath into my Legacy VL100. The Oath has no knobs or controls of any kind, and is just everything all-the-time, while the Legacy is just a really middy and clear sounding amp.
SL: What one pedal could not live without and why?
Dan: Black Arts Toneworks Revelation SuperBass. I bought this from Ben, our lead guitar player (in fact, I think all my pedals may be Ben’s hand-me-downs!) It gives me a lot of options; from overdirve, to dirt, to fuzz without totally taking the bass out of my bass. It does everything pretty damn well, with the least amount of low end sacrifice in any pedal similar pedal I’ve played to date.
Phil: If Ben doesn’t list a delay pedal, I’m calling bullshit on his answer! I could live without any of the pedals (and have had too many times), but I do love the BAT Black Forest. It is just super versatile and adjustable-- I think I could get close to “my sound” with just my V, that pedal, and any amp.
Ben: The Quantum Mystic. Take everything off my board save for that and I can get the notes out of my brain and channeled through my rig. Of course, I say this, and then I’m sure Mark will come out with something even more badass and I’ll have to eat my words. Also, Phil can kiss my ass! I love delay well enough, but the starting point for good, heavy tone is the dirt.
SL: What are your amp/ pedal settings?
Dan: Amp: I usually have my gain between 3 and 4 and adjust master volume for the venue/situation. My bass setting is at about 6, mids at about 7.5, treble just past 5. I have the revelation setup to be more of an overdrive tone, almost like a part of my pre section. The pickle pie does the fuzz. The Boneshaker will be my grind-ier distortion, but I just started playing with it.
Phil: I basically dial in a loud, verge-of-breakup tone with tons of mids, presence, and bass on the amp, then boost mids and cut out the lowest and highest frequencies sent from my guitar with the Black Forest pedal. The result is really squishy-sounding in the midrange, with lots of clarity, sustain and harmonics.
Ben: On the amp, I set the lows around 3 PM, mids around 1 PM (with the rocker switch kicked down to the lowest midrange freq), and treble anywhere from 12-3 depending on the stage sounds/acoustics (with the treble rocker switch in the middle). On the QM, I set the level a bit above unity to slam the front end of the amp just a tad. I set the bass at ~2 PM, mids at 1 PM, treble between 12 and 2 (same reason as above), and the distortion level around 2 PM. This gives me a very gnarly, mid-rangey sound without filling up the entire guitar frequency spectrum, as Phil’s rig is set to be a bit brighter with slightly less pronounced lower mids.
SL: What tunings do you use and why, and as a result is there a specific brand / gauge of string you prefer?
Phil: We are tuned to Drop A#, which is like C-standard with a dropped E-string. I think this was as low as we could go and still retain enough string-to-string clarity that we can each play power chords on the low strings and melodies with our other fingers that are actually audible. We both do that kind of two-guitars-at-once sounding thing a lot in this band. As far as strings, I like 12-54s, my preference being Curt Mangan or D’Addario.
Ben: I play D’Addario Pro Steels 12-52. They’re affordable, durable, and sound great.
Dan: D’Addario Chromes. Love them. Super mellow but still some punch. I like flatwounds generally, but these are the perfect mix of tension and tone. They’re rad for the stuff we do; too bad they cost $44 bucks a pack.
SL: Do you have any advice for up and coming guitars players, bands?
Ben: For guitarists: Play the notes that you truly want to hear. Don’t get complacent but know that you don’t have to be the fastest or most technically-minded musician to be a good one. Don’t bullshit yourself or the listeners; if you are sincere in what you play and how you play it, it will often be clear to everyone involved. Avoid getting caught up in having THE gear that X person or band uses. Don’t spend every dime you have on the newest/fanciest/oldest/most awesome vintage piece(s) of gear ever...unless you have a ton of money, in which case send me some. Get good instruments, amplifiers, and pedals that are reliable and know how to use them -- I’ve seen so many bands with old school Peavey or Acoustic Control amps into run-of-the-mill Marshall cabs blow bands with boutique rigs off the stage simply because they knew their gear and how to coax stellar tones out of those rigs. Practice as often as you can; you may never be Yngwie, and that’s fine, but you ought to be able to play the notes right while putting on a show of some sort.
For people in/trying to form bands: Don’t be in a band with people you don’t like and/or can’t trust with money and basic adult responsibilities. Music is an incredible part of life, and you can be soured on it very quickly if you’re in a band/project that causes more stress than it relieves. Don’t cheap out on recording -- a professional recording is not out of reach for any band of adults in 2016, and nothing will hobble your attempts at playing out, building a following, touring, and/or attracting label attention than sounding like amateurs in an ever-growing sea of bands. Record your practices when you can and figure out what works and what doesn’t -- your live shows and experiences in the studio will be so much better if you’ve put in that work ahead of time. More than anything, though, I’d say just make sure you have fun with it. What’s the point in making music if you don’t enjoy it?
Phil: Don’t try to be anyone but yourself, and less is almost always more. We all have eccentricities in how we play our instruments, and you will be a more recognizable, passionate, and interesting player if you do things to highlight these quirks in your playing instead of trying to “fix” them.
Dan: Well, in Khemmis, we have people from very diverse musical backgrounds with substantially different musical tastes. We all overlap somewhere, but we don’t all go home and put on the same records, like, ever. As a result, we never actively focused on a sound or a style. We just tried to make music that was an extension of everyone involved -- and we like how it came out. Stay true to what you here in your heads and don’t worry about how to label it.
SL: Do feel there are deeply help misconceptions about being in a band?
Phil: Not every band from Denver is inspired by marijuana
Ben: I think a lot of people who aren’t in bands think that touring resembles the hedonistic debauchery that 80s hair metal bands wrote about in their power ballads. Touring in 2016 consists of you and your friends hoping your van doesn’t explode between point A and point B while worrying about turnouts, guarantees, finding a place to crash, and what you’re going to eat that night. Don’t get me wrong, you get to play music that you care about to people who want to hear it in cool cities. You get to make friends with people from all over the world. But it ain’t a cake walk.
SL: Moving on a little then, what can you tell us about any of your current projects, tours, cds, etc you’re currently promoting, completed and anything else band related we should know about?
Ben: Khemmis is my only project at this point -- I have a backlog of ideas, ranging from riffs to complete songs, for a variety of side/solo projects that I may or may not ever get around to using. Teaching, writing my dissertation, doing the Khemmis thing, and having a normal home life doesn’t leave a lot of time for other bands. We are finishing up the writing process for album #2 right now and will enter the studio with Dave Otero in late spring/early summer. If all goes according to plan, the album should be out on 20 Buck Spin in the early fall, which is very exciting.
A cool little label out of Texas called Young Cubs (http://www.youngxcubs.com/) is releasing “Absolution” on tape, which is going to be pretty rad. Hell; I didn’t know people still bought tapes! 20 Buck Spin also released a second pressing of “Absolution”, including a small run of coke bottle green records. I think those numbers are starting to dwindle, so maybe there will even be a third pressing. Who knows? We’re really lucky to work with Dave (and Kayla), who are genuinely awesome humans.
Dan: The new material seems pretty different from “Absolution”, to me. There are elements for sure, we might be drawing on the format of the album a little, but the differences seem significant enough, to me, that it may challenge a few people that really liked “Absolution”. Similarly, people who may not have been into “Absolution”, might like this one a little better. I am not worried, because we like it, and we’re having fun playing it -- that’s all that counts.
SL: What springs to mind when you think about the completion of material for your new record and how is the mood in the camp at present?
We are incredibly excited about this album. We feel that we have been able to dial in our overall sound in a more cohesive way that has allowed us to focus on the songwriting. There is definitely more rock ‘n’ roll swagger on this album, but we also have some of our sludgiest, most aggressive moments. Oh, and solos. Lots of guitar solos.
SL: What are your favourite songs to play live?
Dan: “The Bereaved” and “Serpentine” for the same reason -- they both have a simple, heavy, melodic groove that’s easy to get into. I can just zone out and dig in.
Ben: “Ash, Cinder, Smoke” and “The Bereaved” are always fun to play live. The former just has some of my favorite grooves and harmonized lines that we’ve written; the latter is the one that people expect us to play, the one they cheer for when I mention the title on stage. That is always a strange and exciting feeling -- who would have thought that anyone would ever even know these song titles? We have also started playing a new one live, titled “Beyond the Door.” The final section of it is probably the heaviest thing we have ever done in this band, and it’s ridiculously fun to play.
SL: Who are some your favourite bands you have toured with and what has been your proudest moment and/or performance of your playing career?
Phil: This has happened a few times now, in a couple different places, but the proudest moments for me have been when Veterans have walked up to me after our set and told me how much (the song) “The Bereaved” means to them, and that it helps them sleep and feel normal. I feel honoured to have written something that can help people, and especially people who lay their lives on the line like that, in such a profound way, when I have such a different but similarly life-affirming connection to the song. It is really beautiful.
Ben: Playing a string of shows with The Atlas Moth and Vattnet Viskar last August was a great time. We already knew the AM guys, and we instantly made good buds with the VV fellas. We played with so many awesome bands on that run! I think that we’ve had a lot of incredible moments in this band that we try not to take for granted. Playing Denver Black Sky the last two years was awesome. Hell, every show we play in our hometown is a lot of fun. Denver supports its bands and comes out for touring bands like no other city I’ve seen. Our album release with Call of the Void and Of Feather and Bone at the most excellent HiDive was particularly special, because my parents flew out from Mississippi for the weekend.
Dan: Shit, we’ve had so many unbelievable moments in the last year alone. I guess playing with Pig Destroyer was up there. The Decibel list was big. Signing on with 20 Buck Spin was awesome. Okay I got it: One day I walked into a local restaurant with my 7 year old daughter. She was wearing her miniature Khemmis Beer Wizard shirt. A woman who worked there was leaving and as she walked past our table, she stopped by my daughter and said “What a cool shirt, I have the same one. That band is awesome!” My daughter’s eyes lit up like Times Square. I turned into jelly. It was cool. That woman, Shanda, was also carrying a guitar, which I later learned was a Gibson Marauder (she plays in a great Denver band called Luna Sol).
SL: What can fans look forward to from you over the next 12 months? How is your schedule shaping up?
SXSW in March, recording in April/May, Seven One Grind Fest in June, Migration Fest and West Coast run in August, and more cool stuff in the fall and winter that will be announced in the coming months. We’re hoping to make it over to Europe in the next 12-18 months as well.
As for Denver, we’re playing some great shows in April, May 12 (with Druden, an incredible black metal band from PDX), and June at HiDive (details TBA). Check out our tour dates page to keep up with those as we announce them in the coming weeks. (http://khemmisdoom.com/shows)
SL: Finally, do you have any final comments/word of wisdom you’d like to bestow upon us?
Spend more time doing cool things (e.g., making music, hanging out with dogs, drinking good beer, eating tacos at Illegal Pete’s, making your city and scene as awesome as possible) and less time on Facebook or mindlessly sitting in front of the TV. Listen to ZZ Top as often as possible.