Curse of the Deceiver: An Interview with Phil Pendergast of KHEMMIS

When a friend heard I enjoyed the band Mammothwing, he suggested I might like this new-ish band Khemmis, a Colorado doom outfit whose recent debut album Absolution had gotten some good reviews.

It’s safe to say that friend was correct; the band that drew me in with 2015’s Absolution became one of my favorites with their 2016 follow-up Hunted.

So I was very happy to have a virtual chat with guitarist/vocalist Phil Pendergast about the band’s upcoming fourth album Deceiver, coming out November 19th via Nuclear Blast. Phil talks about the stories behind the music, how the pandemic and recent lineup changes have affected the band, and more. Enjoy!

When you released Absolution back in 2015, where did you think the band was headed?  How does that compare to where you are now?

Phil: We had no expectations, whatsoever. We were just excited to have a record coming out (on vinyl, no less!!!), and to get out on the road and play songs for people who may now know them. When we started, we were firmly committed to NOT touring, and eased up on that over time once we realized we wanted to… Fast forward to now, and we are kind of back in the same place. I’m just as excited as ever to have a new record coming out, have the vinyl in my hands, and get out on the road after such a long break to share these songs with people. I still don’t know where we are headed and try to not have expectations about that. A lot has changed, but a lot has stayed the same!

The album art implies a storyline that’s weaving through your full-length releases.  Can you tell me a little about that?

Phil: I usually try to keep this pretty vague because I like hearing other people’s interpretations of the storyline. Some might be better than what we have in mind! I’ll just say that the album covers aren’t always going to follow a purely linear, time-based narrative and that the character on the front of the new album is someone you’ve seen before. There are a lot of little hints and throwbacks to how the new one fits in with the others, but it is kind of up to you to follow the crumbs and draw your own conclusions. There may be some parallel universes/time paradox stuff going on, or maybe I’m just overthinking it! This time around I did even write a short story to Sam Turner, who does the art, to explain how the character needs to look because of where it fits into the broader narrative, so I clearly AM overthinking it. 

You have some live shows coming up later this year and in early 2022.  What are you doing for a bassist?  (Following the departure of original bassist Dan Beiers, announced in April 2021.) Any thoughts on a permanent new member?

Phil: Dave Small is playing bass with us right now. He is a fantastic musician and way more than capable of pulling off these songs live. More importantly, he is really easy to be around and seems to fit in well with the rest of us. I think it is too early to say whether he is “the guy,” but he is a great dude and we are happy to have him in our camp. 

Related question — what was it like for Ben (Hutcherson) writing and recording bass lines to his own guitar parts?

Phil: I know from talking with Ben about it that it was a really good learning experience in restraint. Often with the guitars in Khemmis, we are trying to fill a lot of space, and the bass plays a much more supportive role. However, there is a lot of subtlety there: how consistent your picking dynamics are, when to play low or high, where to deviate from the guitars and have the bass stand on its own. Ben and Dave Otero (our producer) worked really hard on finding the right balance for all of these things to compliment the songs, and did a great job with it. Ben crushed it, and I love the bass tones on the album.

How did the pandemic affect the writing and recording process for this album?

Phil: Bottom line: we wouldn’t have made the same record in a world where we didn’t have the pandemic. I found myself in the worst depressive episode of my life, and it was exacerbated by everything else that was happening in the world. It can be difficult to feel like your own suffering is worthy of attention and care when you are surrounded by and being subjected to so much collective trauma. In the end, I drew inspiration for the album’s lyrical themes from wrestling with that experience.

Musically and just practically, it had a huge impact too. We couldn’t get together for a few months as we were writing the majority of the raw material for the album, and so we had to share ideas digitally using software like GuitarPro, which we hadn’t done before. That imposed certain constraints and a different thought process that we had to contend with, and it wasn’t always very fun. Maybe that added another element of darkness to the whole thing, because it literally felt so difficult to put these songs together. In the end, this album is a very honest reflection of us at that point in time, warts and all. I’m proud that I’ll always be able to look back on it that way.

Cadmus and his descendants in Greek mythology endured many tragedies as the result of a curse.  Is the song “House of Cadmus,” which the band released an animated video for, inspired purely by the myth?  Or are there any real-life parallels?

Phil: The song is about my deeply-seated fears of a very real evil tied to my bloodline, a kind of ancestral curse that I’ve had to contend with my whole life. I went into writing it with the intent of recognizing and expelling that curse in an effort to reclaim my future. Only after writing the song, purely for myself, did I recognize the parallels with the myth. Ben suggested that as the title for the track and it fit like a glove. 

The closing track “Astral Road” has more of a straight-ahead, classic hard rock feel than I’ve heard from Khemmis, at least in the intro.  What was the inspiration for that?

Phil: On both Deceiver and Desolation, we have kind of ended up using the last track on the album to look back over the previous album, take inspiration from what we were doing, and try to outdo ourselves while writing in a similar style. Desolation was very much inspired by the traditional Heavy Metal that got us all into this music in the first place, so “The Astral Road” is us channeling those influences. A tricky thing about that track is that it has several different moods, and we had to figure out how to bridge the gap between, for instance, this pretty sparse, Pink Floyd-inspired opening and this immediately rockin’, Priest-esque verse. Zach had the brilliant idea for me to layer in these Halford-inspired, harmonized falsetto screams, which instantly takes the song from having these disparate parts to feeling like something that could have been off of Stained Class or Sin After Sin. Then, I tried to channel my inner Bruce Dickinson on the verses, and the bridge is total Mercyful Fate worship. Priest, Maiden, and Mercyful Fate are three of our biggest inspirations, and this is about as close to paying direct homage as we get! 

How does it feel to be performing again as the pandemic restriction winds down?  How are you mitigating risk as you get back out there?

Phil: We have all tried to be pretty careful throughout the pandemic, and made sure to get vaccinated as soon as possible to minimize our own personal risk. Of course, if they are available, we’ll all be getting booster shots before we head out on tour, and I’d encourage everyone else to do the same. Ideally, we would be waiting until this was no longer an issue before getting back out there — but it really just feels like the pandemic is a permanent part of our lives now and isn’t going away any time soon, so we have to be realistic about it and just accept some level of risk if we want to play these songs in front of anyone again. The shows are being booked at places that will require vaccinations or negative test results, which obviously isn’t perfect, but it is what we feel like we can reasonably do to go about this in a way that is safe and fair to as many people as possible. 

In addition to the winter tour dates, what’s on deck for Khemmis in 2022?

Phil: There is so much uncertainty right now that it is really hard to say for sure. I know we would like to play more shows, ideally in some new parts of the world that we haven’t been to before, but that might be too much to ask. We recorded a couple extra tracks while making Deceiver that I hope see the light of day next year, but beyond that I’m going to just try to be thankful for what I have and for whatever comes next. 

And that’s a wrap! Now inquiring minds want to know about the Pendergast family curse…

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